Director: Rahi Anil Barve
Co-director: Adesh Prasad
Cast: Sohum Shah, Mohammad Samad, Jyoti Malshe, Anita Date, Deepak Damle, Ronjini Chakraborty
Tumbbad is a richly imagined and daringly detailed fable of fantasy and horror that, at times, gets overwhelmed by the force of its own world-building. A goddess’ womb, a disgraced deity, a cursed village, a buried treasure, a chained tentacle-wielding grandmother, famished ghouls, a decrepit legend, a wolfish moneylender and a multigenerational narrative – the setting is drenched in the mythical and metaphorical. Like most Guillermo del Toro spectacles of genre-fluid simplicity, Tumbbad is more created than written. It lives, rather than enlivens. The film waxes gloomy about the three phases of Vinayak Rao’s (producer-actor Sohum Shah) life: from the time he is a boy in a haunted house to the period he becomes a father who is in two minds about haunting his own boy.
Each chapter explores the notion of greed as an heirloom. Which means that Tumbbad is effectively about the legacy of the villain – it can’t humanize the man, and therefore ends up humanizing the concept of nature that accommodates him. At different points, Rao’s attitude turns the people, monsters or objects around him into symbols of relative hope. Yet, despite his lurid excesses, there’s a working-class survival instinct to the journey he routinely undertakes to keep his family afloat. Inheritance is hard work. He is a glutton for shortcuts, but there’s a modest sense of breadwinning duty about his trips into the unknown. He, too, leaves in the morning and comes back at night, exhausted by the demands of his “job”.
The frames are hypnotic but in an infected way, as if this universe unfurling under the grey skies of pre-Independence Maharashtra were a manifestation of something more adult, more tortured – like perhaps the demons in the maker’s mind? It hasn’t been easy for director Rahi Anil Barve to realize his decade-long vision. In some strange manner, everything we see on screen now is a projection of, and simultaneously an escape from, his phase-wise struggles. As a result, it is visually expressive but emotionally strained.
Often, we see beating hearts engraved into rotting corpses. Yet, the film adopts the body of the heartless. Because at its moral core, there is the gunn (quality) of greed – the story of the desperate Rao in pursuit of gold coins to bankroll his Brahmin-esque existence is as much the fantasy of a filmmaker craving for an easy miracle to revive his project as it is the fable from a storyteller in search of an original space. Every time Vinayak heads back to the fallen village to “earn some money” by risking his life, you sense the fragmented journey of Barve who might have embraced his roots to preserve his sanity.
Pankaj Kumar’s lens has merely interpreted the personal as a series of external paintings. The camera provides closed spaces with a labyrinth-like endlessness; the lack of geography is suited to find the best possible shot instead of the most coherent one. This is in equal parts disorienting and dazzling, in keeping with the film’s subconscious theme. But again, this forces the resolution to be more visual than visceral – a curious lack of punch that stops Tumbbad from transcending its form.
The trick maybe is to digest Tumbbad as a dark bedtime story narrated by an orthodox Brahmin father to his kids every night. The morality and broadness of this universe is his, but the wild texture and density of details aren’t. Rather, these are a child’s way of vividly processing what is essentially a cautionary tale. They fill the boxes with their own brand of colour – one that embraces design over depth. Nature over feeling. Children, after all, are the key to Tumbbad. They are the heroes…until they grow up.