Human fears are universal, but the expression of those fears is different in every culture – which can be a lot of fun for horror fans. There comes a time when being too steeped in the horror stories of your own culture can undermine the feelings of unfamiliarity and surprise on which the genre depends. Looking to another country for new, culturally specific versions of creepy tropes – like Japan Ringuspain The orphanageiceland Lambor from Taiwan spell – lets horror fans encounter familiar shocks dressed in bright new ways capable of digging under even the most jaded skin. Along the way, they can also learn fascinating things about the many different ways people shape and share the same fears.
It is one of the great joys of Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve’s superb 2018 Hindi horror story about gods, greed and gore. The raw bones of this film are familiar enough: the man gives in to his vices, the man faces a supernatural compatibility. But the specific form this story takes and the images used to present it will be unfamiliar to Western audiences. And the graphic, spooky details hit especially hard because they’re so unexpected. It’s a great find for the Halloween season.
India has a long but relatively close history with horror movies, and Tumbbad was a hit when it was released there, probably because it’s so weird, insistent and streamlined, and yet so essentially an Indian story, rooted in the country’s history and its specific traumas. The three story chapters each have different major secrets and discoveries, and they each have a slightly different flavor of horror.
The first is a simple fable of shock in the night, filled with sudden shocks and gruesome practical effects. The second feels much more Lovecraftian, with a protagonist knowingly infecting himself with terrible knowledge and coming to terms with the effect on his psyche. It helps that the story centers on a forbidden and lost god named Hastar, a name that doesn’t actually come from Indian mythology, but will certainly be familiar to fans of HP Lovecraft and his followers, even though it has been reskinned. And the third chapter builds perfectly on the intense clashes of the first two, with one of the most chilling revelations modern horror has to offer. Even so, it’s more of a creeping fear and inevitability than a jump scare or graphic violence.
In the first – set in 1918, against the backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi’s early rebellions against British rule – young brothers Vinayak and Sadashiv Rao chafe at poverty in the rural town of Tumbbad. They live in the shadow of a vast, ramshackle mansion owned by a decrepit hermit named Sarkar, who is secretly their father. But he never acknowledged them, or his relationship with their mother (Jyoti Malshe), who has been his servant and mistress for decades.
Sarkar’s mansion supposedly holds a hidden family fortune. Vinayak, in particular, is entitled to a share of the money, representing not only an escape from the day-to-day life of his family, but also the respect and pride of a place he desires as a as the son of a rich man. Instead, his inheritance is a mysterious obligation to a monstrous old woman who is chained to his home, in the care of his mother. The family speak of her with dread and admiration, as they would speak of a boogeyman who needs to be reconciled – and ultimately, with good reason.
The second chapter opens 15 years later, during a tumultuous time for the British Raj. Now an adult (and played by Bollywood producer Sohum Shah), Vinayak returns to Tumbbad, in search of the fortune he never found as a child – and the old woman in chains, whom he sees differently in adulthood. Soon after, he returns to his wife in the vast and sprawling city of Pune, and he brings with him mysterious gold coins. Seeking to sell the coins, he strikes an ill-fated deal with Raghav (Deepak Damle), a friend, pawnbroker, and merchant who hopes to make his way to a profitable opium-selling license. Both men are driven by greed and a desire to improve their positions, and both suffer from it.
The final chapter begins in 1947, shortly after Partition, which shook India but barely touched Vinayak and his family. Vinayak is aging at this point and must decide what to pass on to the young son who worships him and is constantly striving to please him. Vinayak is reluctant to part with the family secret, but as always, his greed keeps him from dismissing the idea altogether. Anything that leaves Tumbbad spanning three generations – and by implication, many, many more. The open question posed by writer-director Rahi Anil Barve – the question he began exploring in 1997, when he wrote his first draft of the film at age 18 – is what it takes to stop the cycle of greed that destroys families and countries with equal alacrity.
The three chapters work perfectly together as a sort of dark fairy tale about greed – where it comes from, how it perpetuates itself, and how it can act like a drug, overwhelming the senses and making its victims dependent. Shah plays Vinayak as a contemptuous and abusive man who thinks mostly of his own little pleasures and expects everyone to serve him. He is cruel and selfish, as much the villain of the play as he is the dark god his family serves.
But Barve and his team also suggest some sympathy for him, given his background. The fable that opens the film says that the gods have cursed Tumbbad because of Vinayak’s family, and that the perpetual rains that engulf the place are a form of divine wrath. These storms feature prominently in Barve’s crisp, grim imagery throughout the film: Whether they’re visiting Tumbbad’s mansion or huddled in their own hovel, Vinayak, his mother, and brother are perpetually drenched to death. skin and mud coatings. (Barve says he shot the film for several years during the monsoon season, to get the right atmosphere.) The family doesn’t comment on the rain, as it’s the perpetual backdrop to their lives, but they all look cold, diluted. , and on the verge of disappearing entirely. It is quite clear why Vinayak dreams of escape and wealth to live as he wishes.
But Tumbbad lays out a rich metaphor of how these dreams snatch most of the freedom and happiness from Vinayak’s life, leaving him in a perpetual nightmare where he dwells on the cost of his wealth and resents anyone who surround him who share him without paying the price he pays. He cannot let go of his riches, but neither can he fully enjoy them, which leads him to increasingly evil excesses. A pivotal story unfolds all around him, and his country suffers, changes, and grows stronger, but he isolates and isolates himself by focusing only on his own gain. It’s a beautifully crafted trap, built into the heart of an equally beautifully crafted story, where the supernatural horrors are downright terrifying, but Vinayak is far scarier.
Barve makes sure it all hits home by presenting it with a visual richness and lushness that will keep its viewers’ eyes pinned to the screen. He shot in real abandoned rural areas to give Tumbbad’s setting its lonely yet majestic texture, and wherever possible he relies on practical effects to give it weight. When CGI does feature, especially in the film’s explosive climax, it’s deliberately contrasted with physical effects to make the action seem more bizarre and disturbing, rather than trying to blend in with the rest of its world.
The colors in Tumbbad are unbeatable, especially the gruesome, raw reds that define Vinayak’s secret and its price. And the visuals are just as vivid, leading to unforgettable moments that even longtime horror fans will never have seen on screen before. All horror is meant to take the audience out of their comfort zone and leave them feeling threatened by the unknown and the unknown. Tumbbadwith its confidence in the flavor of Indian myth and the shape of Indian history, just takes them further than most horror stories. In the process, it leads to stranger, darker, and more uplifting places.
Tumbbad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.