Derived from many sources in Marathi literature, folklore and elsewhere, this is a horror movie about the baseness of human nature. It starts off in the early part of the twentieth century and concludes sometime after the partition of India in 1947. In a sense, given the deliberate timespan of the film and the inclusion of an unscrupulous British official who profits from the Opium trade, the movie could be read as a horror story of the birth of our nation, from colonialism to conception, and thence to a painful and bloody delivery.
At the centre of it all is the mythical ‘Khazana’, the treasure that is considered the rightful due of the ‘Konkanasth Brahmin’ family at the centre of this film. In the early years of the last century, at a distant fort in present day Maharashtra, a widow and her two sons are the caretakers of a haggard old man and a gargoyle of an old woman. These two have a secret they do not explain. All we know is that they have been trapped by a monster that constantly needs to be fed. Unable to handle this evil spirit at the Fort, the widow takes her elder son and migrates to Pune.
Years later, in the 1920s, the son is now a grown man called Vinayak (Sohum Shah). He has no fixed income in Pune, but has memories of a treasure left behind in the custody of a monster residing in the Fort of their ancestral village. He travels there, and finds the monster still existing, but in a different form. As for the treasure, it is available, but not in its entirety. It has to be extracted from the monster, in small numbers of gold wedges, one small bagful at a time. Vinayak figures out how to do this. He then travels back to Pune and exchanges the gold for cash, business, real estate, wine and women.
Over the years, he slips into a decadent lifestyle, and realising that middle age has overcome him, he introduces his adolescent son to the hidden source of income. The entire cycle of easy money and greed begins afresh.
‘Tumbbad’ is a film that is constructed entirely on ambience, set design, costume and special effects. All these aspects of cinema are exceedingly well handled, particularly in the creation of turn of the century Pune that we see in old photographs and etchings. The description of the monster, too, is completely original. It is a creature quite unlike those in the iconographic Hollywood horror films. This one is part religious idol and part ‘rakshas’ (demon). it is a symbol of avariciousness; a monster that eats its own children in order to give birth to immeasurable wealth.
As pure narrative,’Tumbbad’ holds together well, but as interpretation of a metaphor for the pointlessness of materialism, or as a symbolic representation of the commercial exploitation embedded in Indian political history, or as a case study of the Brahminical sense of entitlement, the film wobbles. It’s eventual cinematic value would probably be calibrated in terms of the establishment of a terrific atmosphere, and of an application of exceptionally good VFX in the scary parts.