Let me be honest. Horror is my least-watched genre in film. Besides Kubrick's classic The Shining, David Lynch's surreal nightmares, or the modern affairs by Robert Eggers, Julia Ducournau & Ari Aster, I have been rarely invested in what the genre has to offer. The source of my disinterest has been the inclination of many popular horror films toward jump scares and cheap thrills. Be it a door creaking at night or the lights suddenly squeaking before the arrival of a horrifying entity, such films are plagued with these cliches that averted me to explore the genre any further.
These films rarely cared about creating a psychological sense of dread that can elicit more than just a shock value. I always wonder whether an inexplicable fear of the dark, ghosts, or devils is paramount to enjoying such movies. No wonder I have been a terrible bore coming up with horror film recommendations for my friends!
But Rahi Anil Barve's Tumbbad is one of the genre films that amazed me on almost every front. It has a strong emotional backing of a person's quest without the generic world-building. It presents a horror tale set in a certain period of history. Yet, it is based on the themes that are still present in today's world. Resultantly, the film is both relevant and evocative.
Within the first few shots, we are made aware of the tale of Hastar – the firstborn of a goddess, cursed to be irrelevant due to his incessant greed. The folklore is presented in a contemporary setting, the British colonial era in India. We follow the narrative through the eyes of Vinayak, who is from a small town in Maharashtra called Tumbbad. The film gives a peek into the mind of young Vinayak – who lives under the control of his mother and marvels at the possibility of being a face of authority like Sarkar – whose Wada their family resides in. Due to a chain of unfortunate circumstances, he leaves the town with his mother who makes him promise never to return.
However, the starry-eyed kid's fascination with wealth and power does not end with this departure. It keeps growing over the years resulting in him going back to the same town, in the same pit of disasters. The clear motivator for him is greed and a lust for power. He had seen the old patriarch Sarkar using his mother for lustful desires with the promise to provide shelter. He had seen his mother submitting to his authority as an attempt to find a better life for herself and her offspring. Young Vinayak observes how his mother's lenience had left them no better and how the question of virtue did not arise for the sinful activities of Sarkar in the grand scheme of things. The morality seemed feeble to the young kid who was blinded by the mere touch of cardinal sins.
The monster in the tale of Tumbbad is not just the monstrous old woman, i.e. the tangible creature that disgusts us with its hideous features and undeniably gruesome acts. It is rather the quality of an individual – monstrous greed among the other cardinal sins that conspires the characters to go down a slippery path while hoping for prosperity. The film manages to convey how a sinful activity is highly tempting to someone who is blinded by such materialistic goals – to someone who understands the perils of powers and wants to cherish them for their selfish unending wants. It also touches upon the concepts of generation wealth, patriarchy, and caste hierarchy in accordance with its subjects by cleverly infusing it with the required balance of gore and subtlety.
Besides these thematic elements, Tumbbad also succeeds in the signifying factor of a horror film – its aesthetics. With its world-building, Tumbbad never resorts to the cliches of horror with its camera angles and movements. You sense the characters' motivations, fears, sorrows through the fine imagery coupled with its ingenious soundscape. It innovates with its shot choices to elevate the source material and becomes a richly-textured atmospheric experience. The feeling of being in a particular moment is captured by the sheer brilliance of such technical elements, which are further edited with an impeccable depth and by giving the individual character arcs their due. What makes Tumbbad stand out from its Indian contemporaries is not just this praiseworthy artistry but how the artistry brings out the themes in the writing.
As a result, Tumbbad emerges not just as a great horror film but as a clearly superior Indian horror film for which path-breaking does not sound like an exaggeration.