It’s a good time to be a Stephen King fan, as the master of horror’s many works have gotten new blood thanks to a slew of successful adaptations, from the box office record-breaker ‘It’ to a number of streaming outlets getting their King fix to long-rumoured adaptations finally coming to fruition. There are a vast amount of King films being released in 2019. ‘Pet Sematary’ is already out, but we've yet to see ‘It Chapter Two’, ‘In The Tall Grass’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’. However, those films will need to do a lot of work to be anywhere near as imaginative as Rahi Anil Barve’s Indian Hindi-language period horror film ‘Tumbbad’, which isn’t actually based on King’s work but still sort of is.
Envisaged by Barve in 2010 as a trilogy of films (with a staggering 700-page long storyboard!), the director wanted to tell an ambitious, dark, and untold story of India’s birth as a modern nation-state. At the same time, it’s clear that he didn’t want to glorify India or indulge in some kind of jingoistic mythmaking; he wanted to offer the film as a modern critique of the world around him.
The first chapter of the film begins on a rainy day in the cursed town of Tumbbad, 1918, when the century-old ruling Peshwa dynasty is on its last legs in the Maratha empire. Young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) and his mother endure poverty in a small hut hidden from the sight of a crumbling mansion. Vinayak’s grandmother has been chained and cursed to live in a state of constant hunger and physical decay after her close encounter with a god-turned-demon, Hastar. Vinayak’s mother takes care of the old lady - she clips the long nails from her ugly toes and feeds her while she is still asleep. When the old lady wakes, the phrase to make her docile is “Sleep, or Hastar will come.” A secret treasure is buried deep somewhere inside the mansion - Vinayak suspects only the old lady knows its exact location. Vinayak’s mother, however, forbids him from going anywhere near the gross crone.
It's important to note that this entire slab of the film is pulled from 'Gramma', a short horror story by Stephen King collected in his book 'Skeleton Crew', about an 11-year-old boy who is left at home with his ancient and morbidly obese grandmother. She dies and, when it turns out she is a witch who worships an entity called Hastur, H. P. Lovecraft-inspired shenanigans ensue. This early part of the film is based on the stories of Narayan Dharap, a Marathi horror writer responsible for over a hundred books and whose stories were inspired by contemporary American authors, including King. ‘Tumbbad’ not only adapts the mechanics of the story surprisingly faithfully but it spins them into the foundation of the entire film, infusing it with the aesthetic of Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’ and the lush hues of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’.
As the story progresses, Vinayak’s mother visits the decrepit mansion to serve her ailing master’s daily needs (i.e. deliver a handjob). When her landlord dies, Vinayak’s mother decides to leave Tumbbad for Pune, one of the modern cities of the Maratha Empire, with a stolen gold coin. When the boy suggests that they should stay in Tumbbad, speak to the old lady, and find the hidden treasure, she makes him promise that he will never return to Tumbbad. To Vinayak’s credit, he does keep his promise until his mother's death.
The second chapter of ‘Tumbbad’ opens in Pune during the 1930s. The opium trade, World War II, and colonialism are touched upon as the film turns into an allegory of India’s journey from the clutch of feudalism to colonialist-led capitalism. Vinayak (now played by Sohum Shah) returns to his childhood home and finds his grandmother, her immortal flesh fused to her room like something from a David Cronenberg film. He offers to put an end to her pitiful existence if she helps him find the treasure.
The third chapter of the film occurs in 1947. We see Vinayak spend his newfound wealth on a new mistress and political bribery, perhaps reflecting the psyche of contemporary independent India. Eventually, his desire to climb out of poverty has turned into an insatiable greed. Vinayak’s son begins to train hard, despite a deformed leg, so he can join his ageing father on his treasure hunts in Tumbbad. Unlike Vinayak, his son is not satisfied with a single gold coin or simple luxuries; the needs of independent India’s first generation are many.
The visuals in this film are striking – the decaying blue of clouds, the sprawling grey of the landscape – hinting at a muted pervasive discontent, often enlivened by a single source of light (from a lantern, a headlight, a flaming torch), which imprison and haunt us.
‘Tumbbad’ opens with a Gandhi quote about the world having enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, and then tells us a story about Pandurang, the Goddess of Prosperity, who gave birth to all of creation, while also mothering an insatiable child called Hastar. One reading of the story is that humans are inherently greedy, and perhaps this is why there is something so unsettling about the more explicitly horror sections of the film, which are set - literally and metaphorically - inside “the womb of the goddess” – a huge, pulsating cavern of flesh where Hastar lurks.
The visuals in this film, via cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, are striking – the decaying blue of clouds, the sprawling grey of the landscape – hinting at a muted pervasive discontent, often enlivened by a single source of light (from a lantern, a headlight, a flaming torch), which imprison and haunt us. The camerawork is rich, vibrant, and tethered to exotic on-site locations. Everything has a painterly look about it, whether it's the red gooey walls, massive temple doors that hold the secrets of giants, or scenic glimpses of architecture silhouetted against a soothing blue night’s sky.
The film's protagonist, Vinayak, is an interesting anti-hero: a daring treasure hunter, an adventurer but also a thief without a freedom fighter’s conscience. ‘Tumbbad’ comes from the long tradition of enduring moral or cautionary tales, most recently seen in films like Matteo Garrone’s ‘Tale of Tales’ and ‘Dogman’, as well as modern fables such as Guillermo del Torro’s 'Pan’s Labyrinth' and Issa Lopez’s ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’. It’s a dark fantasy about the history of greed and its consequences that brilliantly bridges gaps between different worlds - India and any viewer’s homeland - through a common language: storytelling. ‘Tumbbad’ feels like something you could read about in a book of myths, both in subject matter and storytelling style, and it’s easy to admire the straightforwardness of that.
As a unique historical fantasy film coming out of India, ‘Tumbbad’ is a triumph for the filmmakers and a high-point for Hindi horror cinema.