Tumbbad movie review: Ship of Theseus team redefines horror with this genre-defying folksy fantasy flick

Anna MM Vetticad

October 11, 2018 16:48:20 IST

3.5/5

When I was a child I used to imagine that there is a ghost in every commode, monsters under the bed,  and that if you looked hard enough into the inky black night, especially up in the mountains, you would see the spectre of a white man from the colonial era about whom I had heard from an older relative (although she said the spirit descends from a ceiling calling out the words "Van Ross I'm coming").

Sohum Shah in a still from Tumbbad/image from Twitter.

Sohum Shah in a still from Tumbbad/image from Twitter.

There is no foreigner among the primary players in Tumbbad. What we have instead is a wizened and diseased Indian grandmother, a frightened mother and two little children. When we meet them somewhere in rural Maharashtra about three decades before Independence, the mother is nursing the old woman while the kids puzzle over the mysterious goings-on in the shadowy innards of their decrepit habitation. They know that their parent is terrified of something, but they do not know for sure what it is. Looming in the background of their lives is a massive ancestral dwelling in the village of Tumbbad and a treasure they are not allowed to mention.

The air is ominous, and everything that follows serves to build up the sense of unease that settles in with the first shot. India wins her freedom from the British and the older son grows into a man (played by Ship of Theseus and Simran's Sohum Shah) still burning with curiosity about the fate that befell his family when he was a child and what that treasure could do for him.

As someone who derives immense masochistic pleasure from getting startled by the horror genre, I have to confess I draw the line at zombie flicks and other works that do not rest on intelligent mind games but seek to creep us out with oozing pustules, crumbling monsters and festering wounds. I therefore settled into watching Tumbbad with considerable trepidation from the moment I saw an introductory shot of a decaying foot. Yet, curiously enough, although this film does have a fair share of bloodied and rotting bodies, there is nothing gory or visually repulsive  about it. In fact, it soon becomes clear that director Rahi Anil Barve is not aiming at repelling the audience as much as leaving us spooked out and fascinated. DoP Pankaj Kumar (Ship of Theseus, Haider) evidently shares his vision since he shoots the film's creatures cleverly, mostly in dim settings and without allowing his camera to stare at them for long, working far more on the power of suggestion than the spoonfed visual and greatly complemented by the sound - surprisingly understated for this genre - and production design.

Equally surprisingly understated are the performances of this excellent cast. Shah leads the charge, displaying his versatility by comfortably combining an alluring handsomeness with the slimy aspect of his character, in a role far removed from his niceness as the leading lady's beau in Simran.

Although Tumbbad is not a big film in conventional terms, in the sense that it features no superstars and is not flashy, it has certainly been mounted on a lavish scale. Kumar's cinematography contributes to the feeling of largeness, as does the art design. In terms of its images, it has been laid out like a triptych, with Segment 1 of the canvas dominated by the hero's living quarters which gradually metamorphose from a humble home into a semi-luxe Raja Ravi Varma painting; the second are the vast misty landscapes he traverses (which reminded me of the magnificence of Ship of Theseus); and third, a mysterious blood red arena.

Produced by Sohum Shah himself in association with Anand L "Tanu Weds Manu" Rai, Tumbbad is written by Mitesh Shah, Adesh Prasad, Barve himself and Ship of Theseus' director Anand Gandhi. The credits tell us that it has been inspired by the works of the late Marathi horror specialist Narayan Dharap. The end result of this collaboration is a somewhat indefinable film. Greed is the overriding theme. On the face of it, it is a horror flick with a folksy feel, a sort of fantastical desi retelling of The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs. Yet when at one point the leading man goes hunting for hidden gems, he enters what appears to be the pulsating insides of an orifice in a human body, giving Tumbbad its allegorical resonance. Is he in a cave or within the mind of another being or...? It could be one or more of many options.

The joy of watching Tumbbad comes from the fact that Barve and his co-writers offer no answers, making this a delightfully intriguing film.

Updated Date: Oct 12, 2018 18:46 PM