Rahil Anil Barve’s Tumbbad has a fascinating idea at its core, that deals with the generational impact of a man’s greed. And it’s tellingly captured in a scene where a father almost strangles his son, for making a pass at his mistress. “I’ll marry you off in a couple of years, until then… dhoti mein reh.” The not-so-wet-between-the-ears son asks his father what he should do for those couple of years. The furious anger is suddenly replaced with high-pitched laughter. A laughter of camaraderie. In another scene we see the father-son duo transform into fellow ‘men’ running riot among the entertainers of the village. Closely observing a son inheriting the vices of his father, the scene mirrors one of the most compelling and original themes of this supremely ambitious horror/fantasy-thriller.
Set in the early 20th century in rural Maharashtra, we’re introduced to 12-year-old Vinayak. He is understandably smitten with the ‘promised treasure’ in a dilapidated palace, whose last surviving member has died recently. It isn’t long before the mother sees the hunger in his eyes, and makes him swear that he will forget about Tumbbad and the treasure. Obviously, he doesn’t. Returning as a grown man (played by Sohum Shah), he proudly proclaims ‘greed is the only quality I have’.
Reminiscent of those stories in Panchatantra or Amar Chitra Katha, Tumbbad is drop-dead gorgeous in the way it sets the mood. The incessant rain that pours on the village of Tumbbad corrodes not just the palaces, but also those living in them. Pankaj Kumar (Ship Of Theseus, Rangoon & Daddy) shoots the film in a way where you can breathe the stale air of the rooms opened after decades. Jesper Kyd’s music (The Greed Manifests) is one of the finest background scores to come out of Bollywood in the last year. Sanyukta Kaza’s editing is spot on. She seamlessly guides the film through three chapters and over 29 years, without so much as a hiccup.
And in spite of all its aesthetic and introspective nature, Tumbbad doesn’t manage to split the skies. It doesn’t build on the elementary – ‘greed is bad’, moral of the story. For a film that prefers to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, the climax sticks out as too literal. The women in Vinayak’s life add very little to the film’s central conflict. It might be by design, to underline how Vinayak’s greed is a part of his toxic masculinity. The idea of entering a devi’s womb is nothing short of genius, and the womb in question it’s designed intricately too. But one thing unmasks the film’s modest budget- the monster (Hastar) in VFX. Wouldn’t it have been better to imply the presence of the monster, rather than show it?
Sohum Shah is exceedingly good when it comes to depicting the lead character’s morally-questionable ways. He has done this before, if anyone remembers the scene from Talvar where he betrays Irrfan’s character. His splendid ‘poker-face acting’ rivals only that of Jaideep Ahlawat’s.
Tumbbad does take the Bollywood horror film to the next level, but is it the best version of what it set out to be?Probably not. Rahi Anil Barve’s film toys with a dense mythology that reads absolutely brilliant on paper, but translates into something (slightly?) cursory as we move from one chapter to another. The film reaches the doors of greatness, but doesn’t make it past.