Directors: Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad
Cast: Sohum Shah, Mohammad Samad, Jyoti Malshe
Tumbbad is a mysterious and magical movie. The story spans generations and decades – we begin in 1918 and end a little after Independence. The overarching theme is greed but we also witness corruption and betrayal, decadence and death. And what is it? There is horror and fantasy. But the film also works as a grim morality tale. You know how marketing folks entice you with the promise – you've never seen anything like this before. Well, you've truly never seen anything like this before – at least in Hindi cinema. The closest parallel I could think of was Guillermo del Toro's cinematic universe, with intriguing monsters and human beings who are monsters.
For the first half hour or so, directors Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad are creating a classic horror. We are told about an ancient goddess whose womb is the world, her son Hastar, an ancient treasure and a deadly prisoner who must be fed regularly. Rahi effectively builds an atmosphere of dread. It rains constantly in Tumbbad, which is the village where the story unfolds. Long, creepy corridors are lit by lanterns. We see a leg in a chain, with skin that looks like an erupting volcano with ooze and craters. It's genuinely scary.
But then the film changes tack and becomes a portrait of greed and its impact – not just on one man but on his family and generations to follow. Sohum Shah gives a terrific performance as Vinayak, a man who understands too late the curse of easy money. The corruption seeps in slowly. His house becomes more palatial. Gold rings sit on his fingers. But his life becomes more hollow. The love and laughter seep out.
The story is narrated in rich images. Tumbbad is the most visually stunning film I've seen since Padmaavat. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar and production designers Nitin Zihani Choudhary and Rakesh Yadav have done a terrific job. Pay attention to the details like the various locks in the film – the ways in which things are contained. They look like they belong in a museum.
In comparison, the actual monsters are a little underwhelming. As Steven Spielberg demonstrated with Jaws, what you imagine is always more frightening than what you actually see. The real evil of course is in the hearts of men. Over the course of the film, we move from a feudalistic society to colonial India to newly independent capitalistic nation. But the hunger for gold remains constant. And there is no limit to it. You can never have enough.
Tumbbad is inspired by the works of Marathi horror writer Narayan Dharap. At the screening I was at, someone during the interval remarked, "It seems like a Marathi film." I don't know how he meant it but I take that as a compliment because even though the language spoken is Hindi, the atmosphere of the Konkan is so rich and the period details so well executed, that you feel it's Marathi.
I left the theatre with images swirling in my head and a few questions that the film doesn't answer. Which is not a bad thing.