Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad and Anand Gandhi’s time-sprawling, mythological monster horror mixes ancestral fables and family drama for a fun and frightening cautionary tale, involving witches, demons and treasure hunting. The story follows Vinayak; a wily lad/ son of a scamp landlord in the antediluvian village of Tumbbad. We first meet Vinayak as a young boy obsessed with finding secret family treasure connected to his cursed grandmother. Vinayak later learns the gold is kept by a creature from hell in an ancestral temple. To make a withdrawal, he must outwit the demon or risk being eaten, murdered and cursed like his prematurely crumbling Nan.
Tumbbad, which is also the name of the village in which the film unfolds, is initially set in 1918. The script is then broken down into chapters, showing the protagonist at two other stages in his life, fifteen years apart. We see Vinayak learn about as a child where he is first informed of the treasure and the monsters surrounding it, then from his first to final encounter when middle aged, by way of family hardships. During these desperate times, Vinayak must risk his life to retrieve gold (from a demon’s loincloth) when needed. The story and context surrounding each encounter, at different periods, provide invaluable insights into Vinayak’s life. This, in turn, adds extra tension and suspense to the action while lending emotional weight to the ghost train antics, therefore strengthening frights.
What is also interesting about meeting Vinayak at these different stages, is seeing how much (and how little) he has changed, along with his perception of the temple’s terrors and his crispy skinned grandmother. Surplus context of family relationships slow down the story, but Tumbbad’s mythological backdrop relating to “the goddess who created the universe” and her first born, is exhilarating, grasping and fascinating framework. Barve’s film also compels due to it being set during India’s pre-independence era, along with its stark, baron location (Konkan, Maharashtra): the perfect baron and haunted landscape for horrors to become.
Blemished but endearing characters also augment the uncanny, along with the mythology and demon/ monster design, for it is during these horror scenes when Tumbbad truly prevails. Barve, Prasad and Gandhi’s film is a frequently fascinating foray into Indian folklore that manages to both frighten and entertain: the sight of an evil grandmother dragging a child into a cellar with the intention of eating it’s head, is jaw-dropping. While Tumbbad dilly dallies in dead-end family disputes and sometimes sags as a result, it also offers incredible insights into a culture, history and legend, rarely seen on silver screens in this context; that being of a jaunty, spooky monster movie made magical by mythology, enriched with intrigue and more mysterious than most mainstream horror.
The 62nd BFI London Film Festival runs from 10 – 21 October. Tickets available now from www.bfi.org.uk/lff