Directors: Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad
Cast: Sohum Shah, Mohammad Samad, Jyoti Malshe
The Venice Critics’ Week was inaugurated with Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad’s non-Competition entry, Tumbbad — that’s the name of the very rainy village in which the story unfolds. Technically, though, the section was inaugurated with Toni D’Angelo’s 20-minute Italian short, Nobody’s Innocent, which played before Tumbbad, like the first part of a double bill. In some ways, this was a very “Indian” film, too, given its theme of how hate speech poisons even educated minds, by stereotyping certain sections of society as “evil.” Towards the end, it became clear why Nobody’s Innocent was a fit with Tumbbad, which has been promoted as a horror movie. The latter is fantastical horror, while the former’s horrors are all too real — in some ways, it’s scarier.
But again, technically speaking, Tumbbad — which begins in 1918 and ends a little after Independence — isn’t exactly a “horror” movie. It’s more like a ghoulish Panchatantra fable, a morality tale based on the works of Marathi horror writer, Narayan Dharap, and harking back to Mahatma Gandhi’s warning: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” The protagonist is Vinayak (a superb Sohum Shah). When he was a boy, his widowed mother (Jyoti Malshe) aspired for one mudra, or gold coin. But even then, the young Vinayak wants more. He’s heard of a great treasure buried in a local palace. And when he grows up and marries and has a son (Pandurang, beautifully played by Mohammad Samad), the boy wants even more than his father did. (It’s hilarious. Vinayak “trains” his son in the family business the way a lawyer or accountant would.) The greed grows with generations.
Tumbbad opens with some mumbo-jumbo about the goddess of plenty. “The earth is her womb.” Make a note of that. Tumbbad is filled with womb-like corridors and pits and wells. The fantastical elements are, to be sure, disorienting — as is the spectacular production design (Nitin Zihani Choudhary, Rakesh Yadav); watch out for those creepily ornate locks and spiked doors — but there are shades, here, that are startling, given the genre. Deep inside one of these womb-like spaces, the floors are fleshy and red. It’s like crawling back to the ooze where you came from. It’s also a make-your-own-metaphor invitation. Like a miner, Vinayak goes deep down and emerges with riches. This may be a metaphor within a metaphor, with Vinayak being a Brahmin, a stand-in for the usurping upper classes who hoard wealth instead of sharing it.
The trailer introduced us to a demon named Hastar, son of the mother goddess — but unlike a typical horror movie (which is where we usually encounter demons), this is not the spirit that terrorises the protagonist and his family. In a way, you could say it’s the other way around, with Vinayak terrorising and exploiting Hastar, the forgotten child of earth. This is when you realise how truly original Tumbbad is. The inner demons that drive our basest desires are far more malevolent than something with supernatural powers. If the typical horror movie with demons is about screams and sensation, Tumbbad plays like a surreal drama — the principal sensation is dread, a coiled unease that you feel in the innards. The comparison you reach for isn’t The Conjuring, but something like Don’t Look Now or Lost Highway.
The film does not explain, say, why it’s been raining non-stop since Hastar was “awakened.” And some of the plot points aren’t clear. (Why, for instance, was Vinayak’s mother entrusted with the task of caring for, in her home, a witch-like woman whose gnarled skin suggests she was born even before the mother goddess?) But after a while, you realise Tumbbad isn’t something you follow through its narrative. The story is driven by the stunning images — contrasts of light and dark, or water and fire, which are shot like cave paintings by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar. Many of these images — a drenched woman in a red sari, a boy with flour on his face — are repeated, as are themes like patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The men use women for sex, hate them being independent, and think they exist only to perform household chores. The mother goddess is a distant memory.
I apologise if I’ve made Tumbbad sound like something only Rubik’s-cubers will get. It’s just that a film with demons rarely lends itself to subtext — we keep getting information that seems to build to something bigger. Like the reason Hastar, son of the earth, hungers for food (like how the farmers who produce what we eat often go hungry). Like how the sign “flour pounded by Brahmins” contrasts with the post-Independence image of flour being machine-ground in a mill, as the lower-caste labour class sits by. Like how Vinayak’s money goes towards the cause that Nathuram Godse espouses, which loops back to the Gandhi quote that opens the movie. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that, instead of a haunted house, Tumbbad is about a haunted nation, possessed not by the devil but by the past. It’s been a while since something (apparently) genre-based turned out so rich and mysterious, so defiantly its own thing.