Tumbbad may not be for the squeamish, but it raises the bar rather high for Indian horror/ fantasy films that usually follow a familiar template with ghosts or monsters terrorising people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ominously dark visuals and startling sounds provide the scares; which is why the richly atmospheric Tumbbad, directed by Rahi Anil Barve (co-directed by Adesh Prasad) drawing on mythology, history, fable, the work of Marathi horror writer Narayan Dharap and grandma’s tales, creates an entirely original horror movie that has a lot more to it than the usual schlock.
After the prologue about the Mother Goddess and her greedy son Hastar, the film goes on to the first of its three parts. Set in 1918 in Tumbbad, where it rains non-stop, a woman (Jyoti Malshe) is burdened with the unpleasant task of caring for a zombie-like female ancestor. There is a treasure hidden in the mansion that belongs to the man who has an illegitimate son with this woman, one of whom is Vinayak, with an eye on the cache of gold.
Vinayak grows to be a man (Sohum Shah, also the producer and an actor with a fine screen presence), driven entirely by greed and the desire to get his hands on not just a few gold coins, but the entire hidden treasure.
The second part — not too interesting considering what goes before and after — follows Vinayak’s life in Pune, his friendship with Raghav (Deepak Damle) an affair, and then jumps to the end of colonial rule (there is a passing reference to the plot to kill Mahatma Gandhi).
Vinayak returns to the village with his wife (Anita Date) and son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad), whom he has infected with greed too.
There are recurring motifs of the womb, spooky winding passages and the constant sense of dread and foreboding. Even though Vinayak is a rogue, there is something admirable about his reckless courage.
A large part of the credit for the film’s mesmerising visual quality goes to the spectacular production design (Nitin Zihani Choudhary, Rakesh Yadav); Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography and the polished CGI.
Even though it feels like a fireside telling of frightening tales, Tumbbad does not treat the audience like thrill-seeking teens, but leaves a lot to the imagination and interpretation. There are layers of social commentary if the viewer has an eye out for them, and that gives the film a certain unexpected depth.