Tumbbad. 2018. Directed by Rahi Anil Barve & Adesh Prasad. Screenplay by Barve, Prasad, Mitesh Shah, & Anand Gandhi. Inspired by the works of Narayan Dharap.
Starring Sohum Shah, Jyoti Malshe, Anita Date, Ronjini Chakraborty, & Deepak Damle.
Colour Yellow Productions / Sohum Shah Films / Film i Väst / Filmgate Films
Not Rated. 104 minutes.
Drama / Fantasy / Horror / Thriller
Cinema in India consists not only of the widely recognised, hugely popular Bollywood films, it also boasts a massive industry segmented by language, from Hindi cinema (named under the umbrella of Bollywood) to Bengali cinema, the South Indian film industry, and more. Indian cinema produces more films watched by more people than any other country in the world— in 2011 alone, over 3.5 billion tickets were sold in India, equalling about 900,000 more than Hollywood. Suffice to say, the Indian film industry is much more complex than Westerners realise or care to understand. The first films out of India were made just before the turn of the 20th century: The Flower of Persia (1898), filmed at Calcutta’s Star Theatre, and a documentary called The Wrestlers (1899) shot at the Hanging Gardens of Bombay. In 2019, judging by Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad’s innovative work, the future of Indian films is brighter than ever.
Barve actually wrote the first draft of Tumbbad back in 1997. In 2009, he drew up 700-page set of storyboards. The film went through production hell for several more years until, in 2012, it officially started shooting, only for Barve and producer Sohum Shah to realise what was shot wasn’t to their satisfaction. Everything was re-written, re-shot, and filming came to a finish in 2015. Three more years would pass before Barve and Prasad brought the finished film to audiences across the world.
And it doesn’t disappoint.
Tumbbad is a spectacle of epic horror, like a great, terrifying, and sociopolitical piece of classic literature brought to life. The film tells the story of Vinayak Rao (played marvellously by Shah) and a tortured legacy of greed which may or may not ultimately destroy his entire bloodline. Vinayak’s personal tale also follows the tumultuous timeline of modern India with the plot jumping from 1918 to 1933 before concluding in 1947. The personal and the national become one in a Gothic fable about the corrosive nature of greed which explores how a people can be damaged by colonialism and imperialism, as well as how a spiritual culture can become warped by capitalist forces.
An important piece of the screenplay involves how Hindu mythology is incorporated and also how it’s fictionalised. Bits of actual Hindu myth makes its way into the story, such as the Goddess of Prosperity. In the beginning, Vinayak tells his son about the goddess, surely a reference to Lakshmi. He speaks of the greedy god birthed from the goddess, Hastar— this name doesn’t actually appear in Hindu mythology, or any other particular mythology, though the similarly named Hastur turns up in the mythologies of writers Ambrose Bierce (the name appears in his 1893 story “Haïta the Shepherd“), Robert W. Chambers, and H.P. Lovecraft. This is where Hindu mythology being slightly fictionalised becomes significant, because it plays into an overarching theme of the film: new gods replacing the old.
The screenplay evokes various issues in modern India juxtaposed against previous traditions of worship. Hastar— a fabricated god— is symbolic of how the Old Gods are replaced with New Gods as modernity creeps further under a society’s skin. While India moved forward in its trajectory some no longer paid as much attention to the Old Gods (i.e. the Goddess of Prosperity), instead choosing to worship the New Gods (Hastar = greed, money, and consumerism).
Because Hastar’s curse is a boon for us
The film is just as much about legacies which last, buried deep within the roots of a culture. Like how the tag team of capitalism and imperialism continues to linger in India to this day, or even how Mohandas Gandhi left behind a conflicted legacy caught between freedom and patriarchy. As the quote further below suggests, not everything passed down from one generation to the next ought to be inherited. Sometimes, though there are pieces of the old which remain, and need to, there are other pieces better off discarded. Legacies of greed and misogyny running through the veins of India haven’t yet faded. Misogyny is a huge problem in a country deemed the 4th most dangerous place in the world for a woman to live— where marital rape still remains a fiction in India with a new case is reported less than every half hour, and 70% of women are victims of domestic violence. Greed is likewise not only a societal problem for the country, it’s a spiritual one. In Hindu theology, greed (‘lobha‘) is considered one of the “six enemies of the mind” (also known as Arishadvarga or Shadripu).
Tumbbad‘s focus on Indian history along with a personal tale of corrupted morals wrapped up in Gothic horror helps illustrate how such destructive legacies linger in the blood of a nation with gruesome results. The generational aspects of the story and its plots are the most important part of the film. This is why the structure moves from 1918 to 1933 and finally to 1947, as we flow with the trajectory of Vanayak’s family history. Vanayak embodies parts of modern India’s history to show how generations of families have been corrupted due to the colonialism of India under the British Raj.
“Not everything you inherit should be claimed”
Tumbbad opens in 1918. Young Vanayak’s mother is a living symbol of a feudal system’s exploitation— she tends to the sexual needs of an old, rich man for just enough to get by and land on which to live. 1918 is significant as a starting point, only a year after the Russian revolution of 1917 and the emergence of a socialist state power. The British Raj “was afraid of a post-war upheaval and prepared to meet the situation by rallying Indian collaborators” (Ghosh 2449), leading them to exert their imperial influence over the country to a devious degree by turning the classes against one another worse than they had been already.
Cut to 1933: feudalism, imperialism, and capitalism continue to collide. One major note concerning the British Raj is how it controlled the production of opium. They exploited Indian producers, forcing them to buy into production through them, turning an already feudal society into one dominated by capitalist industry. The Raj developed the country “as a market for British manufactured goods in return for India’s food and raw materials” (Thomas A. Timberg “Three Types of the Marwari Firm” p. 2). Exports of opium weren’t bringing money into the economy so much as they were funding India’s own oppressors.
The character of Raghav (Deepak Damle) stands in for the petite bourgeoisie of India, those who were taken in by the Raj and convinced they would climb upward into the big bourgeoisie. They were subjugated to in turn keep the lower classes of their own country in check, rendering the exploited the exploiters in true capitalist fashion. Raghav already has a thriving business, yet wants to gain further economic power by buying into the opium trade with the Raj, offered to him by a British officer. His greed leads him to a catastrophic fate by way of Hastar.
On August 15th, 1947, India gained independence from British rule. That doesn’t mean all those negative legacies didn’t carry forward. Vanayak become part of the petite bourgeoisie at this point in Tumbbad‘s narrative and lets it corrupt him. He’s transformed into an epitome of concentrated wealth. He could use his endless access to gold from Hastar to provide for his community. Instead he hordes the wealth. One scene features men who make flour, and their image— men much older than Vanayak, weary and covered in flour— versus Vanayak in the lap of luxury enjoying the finer commodities is a stark look at the disparate classes of India.
There’s also an evident difference in gender. Vanayak celebrates in brothels with nice cigars, wearing jewellery, and takes his mistress out. His wife stays at home, unaware of her husband’s ‘business’— like it is with typical sexism in a patriarchal society, the son knows more than his mother about the business side of their family. His wife works making flour like the old men when her husband has money enough to support them. Just like Ghandi, Vanayak doesn’t want his women being TOO free. The father’s misogyny is another corrupted legacy handed down to his son, Pandurang, who comes to equate the bodies of women with material/monetary transaction.
Pandurang eventually must break free of the family’s corruption, or else be fated to live out the same cycles of greed as his father before him, and their grandmother, who was originally cursed for her greed. The son must kill his father and cauterise the family curse. Unlike Vanayak did with his grandmother, putting her out of her misery but continuing to search for the treasure, Pandurang sets fire to his father and simultaneously refuses the loincloth full of Hastar’s gold.
a tree grew out of you!
So much imagery appears throughout Tumbbad. The whole aesthetic is Gothic horror, and it’s amazing to see India presented in this light, or, rather, in this darkness. Barve shot in as much rain as possible, in a location known for monsoons, giving the film a gloomy atmosphere. Tumbbad and the mansion itself are akin to a haunted house.
Grandma’s pivotal to this larger image, too. She’s become part of the earth itself below the mansion, taking root and growing a tree from her stomach. Her becoming a tree is a vivid symbol of the deep-rooted greed in their family, and, as a parallel, in the history of India due to its political history. And no matter how deeply things are buried— especially things like ideology— new branches can sprout and grow once more.
Greed is translated visually in various compelling ways. One scene features Pandurang, not long after being born, having one of Hastar’s fabled coins dipped in honey then placed on his lips— a metaphor of the boy being given a taste of wealth, one which goes on to infect him as he grows up. Later, Pandurang and Vanayak face a physical manifestation of their endless greed. When attempting to steal Hastar’s entire stash of gold, they come across multitudes of Hastars. Just like their exponential greed, Hastar multiplies and nearly causes their deaths.
These different, powerful images of greed play into the film’s Gothic aesthetic, working off themes of tortured family lines, monstrous creatures hiding in subterranean lairs, and bourgeois ruins hiding horrifying secrets.
“This is your last chance to be rich”
On all fronts, Tumbbad is the rare film with a deeply relevant message— or, messages— that neither beats you over the head with its agenda, nor does it ever forget, for a single second, to entertain its audience. In this sense, the story takes on qualities of the fable. India is no stranger to fables. Definitely not those about how greed corrodes the morals of those whose lives it touches. There are tales like “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream” and Shahrazad’s “Story of the Merchant and the Demon” from One Thousand and One Nights, the story of the greedy merchant often translated for children, and many more.
These stories came into being because greed is such a genuine part of humanity, no matter from which country a person comes. The political and social histories of India have also crystallised greed as an especially destructive human quality in their country, and it’s why the theme comes up in Indian literature so often, and now in Barve’s film.
Tumbbad operates perfectly fine as a dark fantasy film using scraps of the Hindu religion to craft a spooky tale of monsters and men. It would be foolish to ignore the larger picture, though. When so many Westerners assume everything out of India is a Bollywood picture, Barve’s horror epic deserves a wider audience. Certain people look at films containing social/political messages with disdain, as if the moving image were only created for entertainment. All fiction, regardless of medium, can be both.
Fiction has long been a method of speaking truth to power, as well as a way for people, and entire cultures, to work through real fears and complicated issues. Those who pretend a film is solely an escape rob themselves of important experiences. Tumbbad is not satisfied with being just entertainment, neither is it fine with remaining just an allegory of modern India’s struggles. Reducing it to exclusively one or the other damages its importance as a groundbreaking landmark in the rich tapestry of Indian cinema.
Timberg, Thomas A. “Three Types of the Marwari Firm.” (PhD Dissertation)
Ghosh, Suniti Kumar. “Indian Bourgeoisie and Imperialism.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 23, Issue No. 45-47, 19 Nov, 1988; pp. 2445-2447/2449-2458.