Hindi-film fans in the United States had to wait until Tumbbad made its streaming video debut to finally catch the horror movie that captivated audiences in India and at film festivals around the world. But boy was it worth the wait! Filmmaker Rahi Anil Barve’s fable eschews metaphor in favor of shockingly literal depictions of its underlying mythology. It is a cautionary tale of the dangers of greed — with consequences presented in brutal detail. That the film’s protagonist forges ahead, knowing full well what doom awaits him, highlights how all-consuming the desire for more can be.
Broken into three chapters, Tumbbad begins in 1918, in a fading village bearing the same name as the title. Tumbbad’s governing family gained its wealth by worshiping Hastar, the disgraced son of the Goddess of Prosperity, imprisoned in his mother’s womb for stealing her gold. Legend has it that there is a treasure hidden in Tumbbad’s mansion, but the aged lord of the manor (played by Madhav Hari Josh) won’t divulge its secrets — not even to his mistress (Jyoti Malshe), with whom he fathered two sons: Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Joglekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni).
The lord’s mistress is tasked not only with meeting his carnal needs, but also keeping alive his ancient grandmother (played by Piyush Kaushik), while making sure she never wakes up. The mistress’s family lives in the same house as the scary old lady, and though the kids don’t know the details of her curse, preteen Vinayak is pretty sure his grandmother knows something about the treasure. A series of tragedies give the boy his chance to ask Granny directly — a mistake that nearly costs him his life. Saved by Mom, they flee to Pune.
Chapter Two picks up fifteen years later, in 1933. With Mom dead, now-adult Vinayak (Sohum Shah) is freed from his promise to her never to return to Tumbbad. Their old house still stands, and Granny is, to put it politely, in bad shape. Her appearance reminded me of something out of Lars Von Trier’s Danish TV series The Kingdom, which gave me nightmares for weeks. Granny gives Vinayak the information he needs to find the treasure, calling him a “greedy bastard.” “It’s my only quality,” he replies.
Tumbbad‘s straightforward dialogue makes it highly memorable, like Granny’s ominous warning: “Not all that is inherited should be claimed.” In Chapter Three, Vinayak’s 14-year-old son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) tells his mother, Vaidehi (Anita Date), that his father doesn’t actually like anything, despite having accumulated a massive fortune. Vaidehi asks, “Then what’s the point?”
That’s Tumbbad‘s ultimate lesson: succumbing to greed means surrendering one’s will to a desire that can never be sated, leaving you miserable and mean as a result. The lure of unlimited treasure makes Vinayak willing to take risks that seem insane, given that he knows how horrible and immediate the consequences are, with Granny as his example. Chapter Three is set in 1947, and with age catching up to him, Vinayak is compelled to train Pandurang in the family business. It’s an act of unthinkable cruelty that takes advantage of the boy’s desire to win his father’s love. Poor Pandurang doesn’t understand that his father has no love to give.
Setting the film in the first half of the 20th Century allows for interesting parallels to India’s national independence, and the limited reach of electronic technology creates a chilling atmosphere. Atmosphere is where Tumbbad really excels, after all. Eerie locations and sets are awash in supersaturated colors, the dark mood enhanced a fantastic, menacing score by video game composer Jesper Kyd. All the acting performances fit so perfectly into the world of Tumbbad, as well. The longer I ruminate on the movie, the more impressed I am by it.