Eric’s Review: Tumbbad (2018)

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Sohum Shah, the courageous and greedy Vinayak in Tumbbad.

★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★
This is the Unicorn of International horror movies: The Great Bollywood horror film.

Directed by Rahi Anil Barve

“Go to sleep, or Hastar will come for you.”

This is a command of tremendous import in the story of Tumbbad. This is a tale of dread, coated in greed sauce. Ages ago the villagers of Tumbbad built a temple to the forgotten God Hastar, a god of greed and gluttony, banished by the Mother Creator Goddess of Prosperity for stealing all the gold from the Goddess.  She stopped him before he got to all the food, though, and punished him by forbidding the worship of him, and erasing his legacy from the legendary texts. But the villagers of Tumbbad had a lust for gold, and secretly worshiped him.

Tumbbad has since been cursed with rain and misery, and the temple now is a ruin, largely forgotten but for a few caretakers left to watch over it.  Hastar’s treasure of stolen gold is rumored to still be within the old temple, but the curse on Tumbbad has infected those who stay in it, with insatiable greed and wretchedness.  It is 1918. We follow the story of Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar), a boy whose family has been watching over the decaying old ruin where his great-grandmother (Piyush Kaushik) has turned into a monstrous and violent old crone, sustained beyond death by her greed. The boy figures that he can solve the riddle of the hidden treasure, and confronts the old witch, demanding to know the secrets she carries, but ends up getting his butt kicked by the old woman.

Eventually, death and misfortune fall upon what remains of Vinayak’s family, and they flee downriver to the city of Pune, and he is forced to swear to his mother (Jyoti Malshe) that he will not come back. He swore. It was a lie.  Curiosity got the better of Vinayak, and he returns to the ruin as an adult (Sohum Shah), some fifteen years later.  There he finds the old woman, now being absorbed into the castle itself, with a tree growing right through her.  He coerces what remains of his great-grandmother to tell him the secrets to gaining the treasure, and he dives in to the “womb” of the temple.

Great-Grandma’s living corpse has a tree growing out of her, in Tumbbad.

He returns to Pune, flush with the success of his plunder.  He gets married, buys a home, and with the help of a scurrilous business partner Raghav (Deepak Damle) manages to launder his findings, and emerges as a man of power and wealth in his community.  But  Vinayak continues to go back to the old ruin at Tumbbad, to challenge Hastar for his gold.  Raghav, his wife (Anita Date), and his son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) all wonder what it is he is doing back in Tumbbad.

Hastar has infected Vinayak with a consuming avarice, and as it did for his ancestors, he has succumbed to the lure, and it has spread to his Raghav and family.  Even with all that he has achieved, he continues to risk his life and eventually those he is close to, in stealing from the demon god in that horrible temple. What’s more, eventually changing times in Independent India means that he is about to lose his stake in the old haunt, and the pressure mounts for him to make one last big push for the big payoff.

Bollywood produces so many films, but they have yet to make a landmark, breakthrough horror movie in the west.  I have read a number of critiques about Bollywood’s approach to horror is recycling ghost stories from Japan and the US, and not really creating an identity of their own. Iran (Under the Shadow, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night); Turkey (Baskin, Housewife); Indonesia (Satan’s Slaves); have proven the spread of great independent horror films from regions with far less film production.  I have posted before, a desire to find a great Indian horror movie. And, Eureka! This is it!

This will probably be the horror film to break out of India and show the west some fantastic Bollywood spooky flavor.  It has the terrific pedigree for being the first Indian movie to debut at the prestigious and influential Venice Film Festival.  It also screened here in the US at Austin’s notable Fantastic Fest and L.A.’s Screamfest.  It was released wide in India in October, to rave critical reviews, but not a lot of box office bounty.

Tumbbad River
OK, the old caretaker has died. Let’s get out of here! From Tumbbad (2018)

The first thing that will catch your attention is that this is a gorgeous and atmospherically powerful film: The dank rain-soaked Tumbbad, the flour dust making young Vinayak ghostly by torchlight, and most of all, the creepy womb chamber. Really powerful imagery.  Applause break for cinematographer Pankaj Kumar. The claustrophobic exotic spelunking feel of the movie echoes films like The Mummy, The Descentand The Ruins.  It also takes on some of the fable-like characteristics of something like City of Lost Children, or Pan’s Labyrinth.  In the end, however, Tumbbad really charts its own original path.  I suspect it may be a movie that other people reflect upon and use as the basis of comparison for future films.

The story by writers Mitesh shah and Adesh Prasad feels Shakespearean, or even biblical.  It is a fable about the fundamental flaws of character and presses our protagonist to see how far he will push his luck.  I would say if there is a flaw in this film, is that it does not have likable characters.  Sohum Shah is truly captivating as the fabulously mustachioed Vinayak.  His confident swagger and drive burst through the screen.  But he is like a Scorsese protagonist.  He’s a corruptible and despicable man who falls prey to his sins.  He is not a villain, per se, but he’s certainly not a hero.

The movie is not particularly gory or violent, but it is very creepy.  The grandmother is a seriously nasty thing to behold.  The movie withholds revealing Hastar until the second act, and when you finally see him, he’s a nasty bugger.  I also love the trick that Vinayak has to get his gold.  He’s got a little bit of Aladdin in him.  Daring, clever, and courageous… probably a dexterity of 16.  (D&D shout out!  Heyo!) And though there are not a ton of visual effects, the end sequence is totally boffo, and is a visual stunner.

Approaching the temple of Hastar in Tumbbad.

For those curious, Hastar is a creation for this film and is not a deity in the Hindu pantheon.  Or… at least that we KNOW of.  I am still holding out for a horror film based on Kali.  I am hoping that this movie will inspire other Indian directors to follow the path created by Barve.  And for our numerous fans from India, rejoice!  You have a great horror film to call your own!  Please support this movie so that we get more of them.

Tumbbad is not rated, though if it went for an MPAA rating, I would think it to be PG-13 for being spooky. In India, it is rated 16+.  I was able to watch this on Amazon… but ONE DAY LATER, they pulled it off.  Weird.  As soon as it becomes available, I will update this site.  If you are in India, however, it may still be in theaters near you!

Here is the trailer, with English Subtitles:

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