In this series, Film Companion picks movies of the past decade with great first and last shots and asks directors to break down how they came up with them, shot them and what their significance is.
Tumbbad (2018), a tale of fallen gods and limitless gold, of multi-generational greed and its devastating consequences, is bookended by two striking images. The first, of a harried woman entering the wada, opens the doorway to a lifetime of familial pain. The final shot, of her traumatised grandson leaving, literally and metaphorically shuts the door on it forever.
Director Rahi Anil Barve talks about the difficulties of shooting with a tight budget, studio interference and why changing his original ending means he can no longer make a sequel:
Much before the fantastical elements of the film kick in, it opens simply, with a woman dressed in red standing in front of the wada in the torrential rain – the ‘curse of the Gods’, we’re told. This glimpse of the richly atmospheric Tumbbad, with its perpetually overcast skies and washed-out colour palette, is also an introduction to the inner turmoil of its habitants.
“In 2007, I’d written the first draft of Tumbbad. By 2008, I’d storyboarded the entire film in colour. It took me about six months. I’d always wanted to start with a shot of a tiny, lonely woman, standing in front of this huge wada. It’s a contrast between extreme power and powerlessness. She’s wearing an alwan, which is what widowed Maharashtrian Brahmin women of that era wore. They didn’t wear white, they wore red. And their heads were shaved. I was quite sure that I wanted it to be one-take right up till we see the close-up of the sarkar, but it ended up being two-three shots that we couldn’t stitch together to look like one. We couldn’t nail the one-shot on that day because we had only an hour to shoot the opening.
The rains are real, the clouds are real, the ambience is real. The most difficult part was trying to make this film within a budget. When I said I only wanted to shoot the film during the monsoon, nobody was ready to finance it. I lost 80% of my producers and studios because they said it wasn’t feasible. They said, ‘We’ll give you a specific VFX budget, use it to create rain for some shots in your film. Shooting during the monsoon is impossible.’ But I was 100% sure I wanted to shoot in the rain, especially the exterior portions. I remember this first shot being very difficult to get because it hadn’t rained for the past two or three days. We had rain machines but they weren’t enough.
I wanted the first scene to just convey the ambience. I was sure that I didn’t want any dialogues, just silence for the first five minutes. The world of Tumbbad is a silent, dilapidated world, only filled with rain and sparse vegetation, greedy and desperate people. All of that gets conveyed through the woman, the wada, the sarkar and the rain.
The woman enters through the same door that Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) exits in the end. That symmetry was clear. Initially, the camera was in the same place for both shots. But then we realized we shouldn’t film the woman from the front but from the back because it’s better we discover and explore the wada as she does. If you watch the movie closely, there’s not a single shot of her face. We see only what she sees.
Pandurang refuses to accept the gold his father stole from Hastar, finally breaking the family’s cycle of greed and violence. He’s then compelled to burn his father to death to break Hastar’s curse. Alone, exhausted and stranded far from home, he staggers outside and shuts the door of the wada behind him.
“The ending in the first draft was far darker. Vinayak (Sohum Shah) was a far more abusive character. He doesn’t have a change of heart when they’re trapped inside the womb, he doesn’t try to sacrifice himself to save his son, he actually tries to get out. In that version, it was the son who tries to sacrifice the father to save himself. He’s a brutal boy, he throws Vinayak to the multiple Hastars and tries to get out. But both of them die in the end. We even shot this in 2008, but everyone was so against it that I added the part where he saves the boy.
Tumbbad was originally supposed to be a trilogy. The first part is based on greed, the second on sex and the third, hunger – the three basic instincts. But the second and third parts were based on the original ending I had originally written in the first part. I don’t think I’ll make the second part. I’m done with it. I’ve spent 10 years on the first part. Band baj gayi.
In 2010, a big studio was ready to finance Tumbbad on two conditions – that the father and son survive in the end and it’s a definitively happy ending, and that I cut the scene in which the son gives his father’s mistress a gold coin. If I changed these, the whole film would change. I couldn’t write a heroic escape for Vinayak in which he leaves the gold behind. His entire life’s focus has been the gold and even after he sacrifices himself for his son and gets out, he’s still proud of the fact that he’s grabbed Hastar’s loincloth with the gold coins. It’s his son Pandurang who breaks the cycle. Now I’m working on two other films and in my contracts I’ve made it very clear that I won’t change my endings. The last 10 minutes of the film define everything that come before it. I won’t compromise.
I wanted to avoid a melodramatic ending. The last shot is of emptiness, of desperation. Pandurang breaks the cycle but it’s too late. He has his whole life ahead of him but it’s empty. We don’t know what he’ll do next. When Pandurang exits in the last shot, we stay back. We don’t go out with him. He’s the only surviving character and he’s left us there. We faced the same problem shooting this scene as we did with any of our exterior shots – the daylight. We finished the scene and the light went. Everything from Pandurang leaving the well to walking out of the mansion was shot over two days between 5.30 pm and 6.30 pm. That was the only time we had.
One of the main problems I had with Tumbbad was people saying, ‘This is neither horror nor thriller nor mystery. It’s a mix of everything.’ I always considered Tumbbad to be a mystery with elements of horror. In the end, it’s a human drama. I hate horror films in which people are scared by supernatural elements. Here it’s Vinayak frightening Hastar, not the other way around. The villain of Tumbbad isn’t Hastar, it’s Vinayak. It was very difficult to convince people of that. I think Sohum struggles with this idea even now.”