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Why Tumbbad Works: Horror in the Indian Context

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

‘Tummbad’ sets a benchmark for how gothic horror can be reinvented within Indian contexts.


BY ARNAV DIWAN




A prod too forceful; and the flour-pot tips over, right onto the dhoti-clad boy. White soot envelopes the kitchen, evanescent in the dim glow of a small kerosene lamp. The disturbance wakes the boy’s grandmother. Choking and sputtering, he stumbles the length of the dark corridor to her room, to curb her growls and curses by uttering the words that never fail…

“Dadi Soja warna Hastar aajayga.” (Granny go to sleep or else Hastar will come for you)

The growling stops. There is a crackle of chains; a dull thud. The boy returns to the kitchen; a corner in a small shack in a Marathi village- as the dead of night passes on….

Rahil Anil Bharve’s directorial debut may appear as a creature of the cliched, yet its folk-lore influences, marvellously flavoured by an aesthetic that gravitates in equal part towards the awing and the grotesque, unravels such that it sets a benchmark for how gothic horror can be reinvented within Indian contexts. It does for ‘Weird’ Victorian-era literature what Ayushman Khurana’s Hawaizaada tried to do for Steampunk, only it goes further in adopting the genre to the Indian context.

Tumbbad does not rely on gore or uncanny appearances for its horror. Rather, it builds towards a sense of fascination to succeed in its impact, offered by a fantastic (albeit bleak) narrative and jaw-dropping visuals.

The film opens with Sohum Shah’s gruff, grating narration of the legend of Hastar: a scheming god whose greed led him to betray his siblings. Beloved of his mother, the first goddess of feed and wealth, Hastar was given asylum within her womb before the other gods could retaliate. However, deliverance came at a cost; Hastar was cursed to languish within the womb for eternity. His name was wiped from history- never to be recalled or worshipped, until centuries later one family would invoke him again….

‘Par unhone aisa kiya hi kyu?’ (But why did they do this?)

‘…Kyuki Hastar ka shrap…. hamare liye vardaan hai.’ (…Because Hastar’s curse…. is our boon.)

The exposition comes across as a prelude to a Panchatantra tale; a whispered bedtime story. The narration, punctuated by Jesper Kyd’s eerie score, manages to further shrink that bed to a crib; for Tumbbad is a tale of the cosmic, brought down to the level of the personal. This allows it to rise above, but not diminish, its genre’s convention. Fear in Tumbbad is evolved beyond the scope of jump-scares and last-minute twists.

Horror rarely allows ‘the legend’ to remain distanced from reality; The viewer is usually invited to interpret the narrative before it concludes. Hastar’s ‘legend’ must be a metaphor, we think, presented to us in a guise which when revealed, would show a truth more human and thus tamer. The goddess’ womb must not be an actual womb; the trapped god within ought to have more natural origins, and subsequently, we scrutinize the narrative to herald the coming of further red herrings, until the so-called “real twist” arrives.

Yet Tumbbad betrays this expectation. As uncovered in the brilliant sequence at the end of the second act, the legend is true in the literal sense; the goddess’ womb is real- a massive, blood-red cavern strewn with pulsating varicose veins; Hastar is an otherworldly deity, and though his origins remain inexplicable, one look at him tells us they are not human. The reveal satiates the delightfully macabre appetite whetted by the narrative until that point. We are reminded that the truth had always been there, but the convention’s influence prevented us from accepting it.

Speaking of influences, Hastar’s circumstance draws parallels to Cthulhu, the kraken-esque deity from author H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu.

"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

-Call of Cthulhu (1926)

“Kai yug beet gaye, Hastar apni maa ki kok mein sota raha.” (Many years passed, yet Hastar slept in his mother’s womb.)

-Tumbbad (2018)


Slumbering monsters buried deep in the Earth are not a new concept, but here the numinous connotations of their legend, coupled with the focus on a personal rather than public sphere, serves to create a different kind of horror; one that, as mentioned, is cosmic in its scale. If Hastar was up and about the whole village of the Tumbbad, the narrative wouldn’t have half of the uncanny effect it does.

This is exactly why Tumbbad works well as a cosmic horror tale; It shows-much like Call of Cthulhu- an incomprehensible, godly entity focus on a subject that is small and humane. This relation is fragile, unpredictable and regulated. Any intrusion or change into it is punished; the Brahmin’s thievery results in his slaughter, and Pandu’s trick immediately backfires.

The brand of Eldritch horror Lovecraft became famous for- beautiful and terrible at the same time- is also reflected in the visuals. Through a combination of practical and VFX effects, Tumbbad achieves imagery that can be described as nothing short of iconic. The womb, for example, with its vermillion flesh contrasting against misshapen gold nuggets- strikes as one of the film’s most enduring images.

Even the quaintest objects in Tumbbad manage to add to its gallery of riveting cinematography; dilapidated Wadas with rainwater drizzling down exposed wall-beams and darkly yawning wells; reed-infested shacks dotted over huge rural grasslands captured in panoramic shots; simple lit matchsticks, oil lanterns, spilled flour- all serve to mark the film’s status as a period-horror work.

Tumbbad is split into chapters, wherein at least a decade passes before the plot picks up again. The tone thus varies, as the story shifts from of Brahmins of Konkani-era Maharashtra to equestrian Colonel sahibs of Colonial Pune, to motorcade mounted government agents in the time of Bharat Sarkar. It is a refreshing way to create a sense of time and progression, allowing the story to breathe away from its dark and dreary elements.

The progression complements another method Tumbbad uses to control its atmosphere; setting a clear distinction between the magical and the real, especially in terms of spaces. There is Vinayak’s home in the city where problems of greed, jealousy, business are addressed, while the supernatural does not extend beyond the Wada in the faraway village.

Tumbbad incorporates another trait of cosmic horror which sets it apart from other horror films- the treatment of its human element. There is humanity in Tumbbad certainly, but it is not there to be reformed, or grant a happily ever after; it exists to induce dread of the same uncanny horror it faces- greed. Greed both inspires and concludes the world of Tumbbad; across both the human and the supernatural side.

The grandmother and Hastar are presented to us as already complete and evolved monsters, consumed by their greed (literally). But we are allowed to witness the evolution of Vinayak Rao and his son, and as father hones the technique of his singular trade, the latter proves himself to be even more devious, spurring the film’s penultimate golden-goose moment, wherein their attempt to trick Hastar backfires. Their story inspires a chilling moral: some vices cannot be prevented, despite examples of their consequences.

Tumbbad preaches its own, macabre gospel: not all believers need be devotees, nor all their gods benevolent.

General Trivia

· Sohum Shah, who plays the role of the protagonist Vinayak Rao, also produced the film.

· The film took eighteen years to make, with the first screenplay being written in 1998.

· Mohammad Samad, who plays the role of Vinayak Rao’s son- Pandu, also plays the monstrous Grandmother.

· Tumbbad has been scored by Composer Jesper Kyd, well known for scoring video games such as Assassin’s’ Creed and Hitman.

· In an alternate ending, Pandu is seen dragging his deformed father back home, having spared his life.

·It is heavily implied that the practice of retrieving gold from Hastar was a communal activity, popular in the village five hundred years prior to the events of the film.

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