Indian horror cinema hasn’t made much of an impression on American audiences over the course of its history, but a film like Tumbbad should aid the process a bit. Tumbbad manages to be a fascinating look into Indian culture while using the universal theme of greed to make it relevant to anyone watching it, no matter their nationality. It is a beautifully shot and frequently chilling film that flew under the radar at this year’s Fantastic Fest and has emerged to be one of the festival’s strongest entries.
Tumbbad opens with some fairy tale theatre as the story of Hastar, the first-born child of the Goddess of Plenty, is recounted. At one time his mother’s favorite child, Hastar eventually attempted to steal his mother’s gold as well as her food. He obtained the gold, but the other gods attacked him when he went for the food. He nearly died, but his mother saved him on one condition: that he would never be worshipped and he would be forgotten forever. Hastar agreed, and went into hibernation in his mother’s womb. Eventually, the Rao family woke him up by making a shrine in his name in the village of Tumbbad. Ever since that day, God’s wrath has literally rained down on the village in the form of constant storms. Vinayek’s ancestors discovered a way to obtain the goal from Hastar by entering the goddess’ womb, which sits in the middle of the shrine that they built. Obtaining said gold, however, comes with the risk of being cursed for all eternity.
Spanning from the early part of the 20th century during the British Raj through India’s independence in 1947, Tumbbad follows Vinayek Rao (Sohum Shah), a self-proclaimed greedy bastard, from childhood to adulthood. The film observes him as his family’s greed for Hastar’s gold passes from generation to generation. The film is divided into three parts (a common theme at Fantastic Fest this year), with each part relaying a significant event in Vinayek’s life. Directing duties were also split into three parts, with Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi (credited as creative director) and Adesh Prasad (credited as co-director) each taking a turn behind the camera (whether they each directed one Part of the film or worked together throughout filming I am not sure).
While the story of Vinayek is compelling, it takes a back seat to the gorgeous cinematography, set design and makeup effects. The technical merits of Tumbbad are phenomenal across the board. Shot by Pankaj Kumar, the film is a wonder to behold. From the ravishing landscape shots to the sublimely creepy makeup work on Vinayek’s cursed grandmother (she made the mistake of getting nicked by Hastar during one of her ventures into the womb) and Hastar himself, the film looks great. The visual effects, courtesy of Sean Wheelan and Filmgate Films in Sweden, are exceptional (save for some wonky CGI used to animate Hastar’s facial features).
The womb chamber deserves a paragraph to itself. You see, in order to get the gold coins that Hastar holds, Vinayek must lower himself into the goddess’ womb, a chamber that lies deep underground Hastar’s shrine. Lest you think the word “womb” is a metaphor here, fear not. The womb is a grotesque cavern walled with red flesh and houses Hastar. Hastar’s design calls to mind the creatures from The Descent, but he stands on his own as one of the more impressive movie monsters to grace our screens in recent years.
At 108 minutes, one can’t help but feel that the film could have benefitted from just 5 minutes being trimmed off of the runtime. The film falls victim to bloat in its second act, spending too much time with the drama that surfaces between Vinayek and his mistress. It’s a minor subplot that could have been cut and the film would have been all the better for it. It makes sense that the film is trying to hone in on the fact that Vinayek is a greedy bastard, both with money and his sexual exploits, but the point is already made by showing the risk he is taking by going into the womb.
On the surface, Tumbbad is a morality tale with some elements of horror sprinkled in, but rest assured that the scary parts of the film are scary. Vinayek’s cursed grandmother is a wonderfully creepy display of makeup effects and sound design (she is chained up in a room and has large metal nails protruding from her face to keep her quiet). Every sequence that takes place in the womb is sure to get your heart racing as well. The film gradually builds tension as it moves along, culminating in a final showdown with Hastar that is as frightening as it is soul-crushing. Most importantly, you care for Vinayek and his family, despite the multitude of poor decisions they make.
Tumbbad is one of the more pleasant surprises to come out of Fantastic Fest this year. With a compelling story of greed that spans more than 30 years, a memorable monster and some truly beautiful cinematography, Tumbbad is not to be missed.
Tumbbad had its U.S. Premiere at Fantastic Fest and will be distributed by Eros International. No U.S. release date has been set.