'Tumbbad': Film Review | Venice 2018

Atmospheric, heavy on mythology and scary as hell.

Greed sends a man and his son to face down a demon in an Indian horror film set during the British Raj.

Totally fearless and rapaciously greedy, the larger-than-life hero of Tumbbad (played by actor and producer Sohum Shah) literally lowers himself into the womb of Mother Earth to fish for gold coins in the loincloth of the goddess’ bad-boy offspring. Not a film for the squeamish or claustrophobic, this unusual blend of horror, fantasy and Indian folktales set in the 19th century British Raj recalls a revisited Brothers Grimm, along the lines of Matteo Garrone’s gorily memorable Tale of Tales. Viewers willing to make the imaginative leap into Indian folklore will be rewarded with the foggy atmosphere and turgid emotions of a story full of goose bumps and serious frights.

It is a sign of the times that a genre film, accomplished as it is, is opening the Venice Critics’ Week, once a stronghold of social themes and odes to youthful, arty rebellion. Tumbbad is a straightforward stomach-tightener that should perform well in India, with some break-outs for distributer Eros International. True, there’s a bit of talk about Indian independence and one character proposes assassinating Mahatma Gandhi, but the historic elements in the film are basically time markers, nothing more.

Though the film is directed by newcomers Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad (the latter is credited as co-director), who like Shah and several other members of the cast and crew were involved in Anand Gandhi’s 2013 cult film Ship of Theseus, there is nothing amateurish or uncertain about the production. The meticulous art direction and costume design combine with Pankaj Kumar's smoky lighting to evoke a breathless mood that carries the film from its first creepy scenes in a rain-soaked hut to the final inevitable debacle.

Curses and blessings mingle rather sickeningly in the Rao family, which lives somewhere in rural India in the late 19th century. Sadashiv and his older brother Vinayak are small boys wearing long pigtails and traditional garb. While their widowed mother (Jyoti Malshe) tarries over her unnatural duties in their grandfather’s crumbling mansion, they live in misery in a hut with a chained monster – their great-grandmother – who they must feed while she sleeps.

The long, complicated story slowly comes out. A long time ago, the mother goddess had a greedy baby named Hastar. On account of his misappropriation of gold and food, the gods cursed him never to be worshipped. But the Rao family ignored this edict and built a shrine to Hastar and his mother. Although the baby is a real demon, he has been the fount of the family riches, and generation after generation they have risked their lives to steal gold from his divine diapers. But accidents happen, and in granny's case, she was nipped by Hastar and reduced to immortal agony.

Inheriting the family rapacity is little Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar, voiced by Malhar Pravin Damle), who, finding himself alone in the hut one night, dares to unchain the witchy monster in a scene fraught with terror. But the terror is the audience's more than the bold little boy’s. He is almost eaten but learns the secret of Hastar’s treasure and vows to return for it.

We next find Vinayak a bright-eyed, strong-bodied man with a moustache (Shah) eagerly making his way alone back to the family estate. The hut is a mass of cobwebs and he finds great-granny reduced to a skeleton. A tree has grown out of her empty stomach. And she is still alive.

Shah does a spectacular job of creating a fascinating, lustful rogue who, by his own admission, has only one quality: greed. But of course he also has immense, reckless courage and the ability to keep his eyes fixed on a single goal: money. In town, he moves into a large house with his simple-hearted wife (Anita Date), cashing in a handful of gold coins at a time with the colorful broker and opium dealer Raghav (a twinkling, genielike Deepak Damle). But as he watches the gold pour in, Raghav starts getting greedy, too. Too bad he doesn’t know the family secret of handling little Hastar.

His gruesome punishment is highlighted by realistic VFX from Sean Wheelan and Filmgate Films in Sweden, which created the CG work and animated 3D characters, including the magnificent, hair-raising flayed devil. In the final scenes, Sohum and his disabled young son climb down ropes into the mother’s pulsating red womb one last time, determined to risk all. The fairytale elements fall into place in a climax of real horror.

Production companies: Sohum Shah Films in association with Colour Yellow Productions, Film I Vast, Filmgate Films
Cast: Sohum Shah, Deepak Damle, Harish Khanna, Anita Date, Mohd Samad, Jyoti Malshe, Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar
Directors: Rahi Anil Barve, co-directed by Adesh Prasad
Screenwriters: Mitesh Shah, Adesh Prasad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi
Producers: Sohum Shah, Aanand L. Rai, Mukesh Shah, Amita Shah
Co-producers: Tomas Eskilsson, Anthony Muir, Adesh Prasad, Mitesh Shah, Kanupriya, Sean Wheelan
Executive producer/creative director: Anand Gandhi
Director of photography: Pankaj Kumar
Production designers: Nitin Zihani Choudhary, Rakesh Yadav
Costume designers: Smriti Chauhan, Sachin Lovalekar
Editor: Sanyukta Kaza
Music: Jesper Kyd
World sales: Eros International
104 minutes
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week)