CINEMA || Tumbbad

I am tempted to begin this piece by mentioning the brilliant, singular song penned by Raj Shekhar and arranged by the composer duo Ajay and Atul Gogavale. The lyrics speak of fortune and fear and the whipping music and Maratha beats create a resulting frenzy, reflecting the mood (and central themes) of Tumbbad the film.

The Indian culture of film music (a topic that certainly deserves a lot more space than this piece can afford) has been at its finest when music has been both situational and a conductor of the plot itself. The title track of this period film ticks both these checkboxes, besides fulfilling the neat little duty of encapsulating the soul of the film in a succulent web of music and lyrics.

Tumbbad is about the fictional village of Tumbbad where a great treasure resides in the bowels of its earth. This treasure has its roots to a quasi-mythological beginning of time itself. Hastar (Lovecraft, anyone?) was the firstborn and the most beloved offspring of the Goddess of Prosperity. However, God Hastar was greedy for all the gold and food in the world. Naturally, the other Gods attacked Hastar and the Goddess was only able to save him by agreeing that he would never be worshipped and would be forgotten by history.

The connection of the treasure to Hastar, not to mention the nature and mystery of the treasure itself (consider this: each time the protagonist visits Tumbbad, he only manages to bring a few gold coins back) are some of the variables set to roll the story to its eventual conclusion. And quite a conclusion it is! It is a road laced with greed and gore, the co-horts of fortune and fear.

Tumbbad is the story of Vinayak Rao (Sohum Shah), the illegitimate sire of the local landlord of Tumbbad, who comes to know of the treasure and accesses it from time to time in order to lead a life of affluence and debauchery. When he grows old, he teaches the art of retrieving the treasure to his son, whose apparent cleverness brings the downfall of their entire enterprise in a horrific turn of events at the fag end of the film.

The allegory of this entire morality tale that traces the lineage of greed through three generations, can quite simply reflect the history of humanity (or closer to the couch: human sexuality) itself, or if a soul prefers, a warning about the dark side of nature, both within and without the human body.

The essential need that the human body has for power increases with age, while the capacity for seizing said power decreases. Thus comes the next generation who is trained the art of seizing the instrument of power. As the hunger for power increases, evolution moulds our brains to accumulate and accommodate more and more of it. However, the price of sacrifice that comes with such ventures of expanding falsehood often begin to outweigh the benefits associated with power.

This realization is often cited as one of the mellower reasons why the British ‘vacated’ its colonies in the Indian subcontinent. It is certainly easier to muse upon the price of sacrifice than the oppression that powerful entities inevitably exercise. But this afterthought is for the survivors. For those in the heat of the power play, it is a struggle of fireflies to stay closest to the fire without actually falling into it. In the heat of the moment, the allure of being close to the fire far outweighs the fear of falling into it.

The natural world plays a significant role in the narrative of Tumbbad. The rain soaked village; the dank roads leading up to the village, the grandmother who has been turned into a tree, and the red womb of the Earth itself. The images, canned by Pankaj Kumar , and designed by Nitin Zihani Choudhary & Rakesh Yadav, have been lauded by critics and the awards circuit alike.

Tumbbad has reportedly gone to the floor three times. The perfection, the synchronicity of each aspect of production, was achieved after several missed starts and a complete reshoot post-2012. A brainchild of Rahi Anil Barve, the film has been impeccably directed by Barve and Adesh Prasad. Mitali Shah and Anand Gandhi pitched in with the screenplay along with Barve and Prasad while Sanyukta Kaza has edited the film. []

 

A NOTE ON INDIAN HORROR THAT ACCOMPANIED THIS ARTICLE:

India has had a long tryst with tales of horror, the ghosts and the supernatural – and they have come in so many shapes, sizes and storytelling garbs that this “culture of spooky tales” might merit a good article or two for a resounding academic discussion. The issue I am trying to point out, however, is the strange absence of the genre as far as the serious Indian filmmaking milieu is concerned.

Now don’t get me wrong. Since there has always been the demand for darker tales, a section of the moviemaking industry did churn out a selected number of horror fare every year. Most of them are not worth writing home about, not unlike the efforts of the Ramsay brothers in the 70s and 80s. The Ramsays are a family of filmmakers who were the Hammers of the East, sculpting horror films seeped in superstition, skin and gore for the conservative Indian audience. Many of their films have since achieved cult status.

There has been the odd original horror gem like Ramgopal Verma’s “Raat” or a classic like the final segment of Satyajit Ray’s “Teen Kanya” (adapted from a story by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) but even the most successful of Indian supernatural efforts (Vikram Bhatt’s “Raaz”) were remakes of tried and tested Hollywood or Asian scare fare.

Even as I write this, I feel I should demystify the entire concept of “Indian films” before I can establish an objective plane to speak from. The Indian filmmaking audience has broadly been divided into those who speak the Dravidian school of languages in South India and those who speak in tongues belonging to the Indo-Aryan family of languages in the North.

We who (roughly) belong to the North seldom watch South Indian films, unless they are badly dubbed or shoddily remade in other languages. Thus, when I speak of the drought in the genre, I am ignoring the smart, clever and twisted South Indian films that often breach the fine line between the natural and the supernatural.

The drought has been so severe that for most (North) Indians, the term “Indian horror film” often manages to conjure a disdainful smile on their faces that is reminiscent of the chuckles that intense scenes of horror in those films would (inadvertently) inspire.

Meteorologically speaking, 2018 was a pretty good year. We were treated to two well crafted fares in the genre, two radically different pieces of Art that manage to get themselves clumped together in this little column of ours! Woe this mad obsession with genre!

Jay Chakravarti

JAGANNATH (JAY) CHAKRAVARTI is the Founder/Editor of CultureCult. He is an independent filmmaker based out of Kolkata, India. He enjoys dabbling in several forms of artistic expression including poetry, painting, film criticism and acting. His debut book of poetry, Cornucopia, was published in 2018.

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