“When we die, we turn into stories. And every time someone tells one of those stories, it’s like we’re still here, for them. We’re all stories in the end.” (The Haunting of Hill House)
The Indian nation, its civilization, is a conglomeration of stories. What kind of stories are worth telling? Who decides if a story is worth telling—the writer or the filmmaker; the producer or the bank? The government or its censor board, or the general public? More often than not, a handful of corporate studios owned by India’s richest business families with access to an endless supply of credit decide which stories are worth telling for the majority of Indian citizens. Every filmmaker who defies their will and decides to forge his or her own creative path must suffer, learn to compromise, or lose everything. Marathi director Rahi Anil Barve’s cross-genre film Tumbbad (2018)—the opening film of the Venice International Film Critics’ Week this year—is a case in point.
Written and planned by Barve in 2010 as a trilogy with a seven hundred page storyboard, Tumbbad clearly defied the corporate logic. His independent film Manjha (2007)—shot in black and white over free weekends—won the Best Film Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2008. (Danny Boyle added Manjha as a special feature in the Blu-ray of his Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008).) Next, Barve wanted to tell an ambitious (read expensive), dark, and untold story of India’s birth as a modern nation-state. The only problem was that he didn’t want to glorify India or indulge in some kind of jingoistic mythmaking; he wanted to offer us a critique of the world around him. After his first film, perhaps he felt he had proven himself, but it turned out that India wasn’t ready to support or finance him yet; he couldn’t take the project to the floor despite the initial interest shown by indie producers like Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga. (Reason: indie producers have a lot of critical following and sense, but not enough money.)
Most historical corporate film studio projects tell the larger-than-life stories of “good” individuals who have shaped our history, but not all stories passed down to us from generations ago are about the humanitarian or heroic impulses of our species. Vikram Vetala and Panchatantra, Aesop’s Fables and Grimms’ Fairy Tales—these are collections of stories about human nature, its many urges, the choices we make and their consequences. Tumbbad comes from the long tradition of such enduring moral or cautionary tales. However, it took its director over a decade to make and release the film. Although planned as a trilogy, the filmmaker now has no intention to follow it up with a prequel or a sequel. I don’t blame him—he has suffered enough. The film got stalled, again and again, and when it was finally ready for distribution, it was released with a financially restrictive adult certificate imposed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), commonly known as the censor board of India.
Oftentimes we forget that, even when a majority of Indians came together to fight for India’s independence, there were many who had nothing to do with the nation’s tryst with destiny, its struggle for sovereignty. Tumbbad is a dark fantasy about the history of greed, and its consequences. Tumbbad’s protagonist, Vinayak, isn’t a hero whose story could inspire people for the nation’s cause—he is a daring treasure hunter, an adventurer and thief without a freedom fighter’s conscience. As a dark fantasy in its intended form—a “finished” film— Tumbbad is quite spectacular cinematically, but the storyline appears to have been trimmed, and the filmmaker tamed for a successful performance at the box office. As a unique historical fantasy film coming out of India, however, it’s a personal triumph for the filmmakers, and a defining moment for Hindi cinema.
The first chapter of Tumbbad begins on a rainy day in the early 1920s, when the century-old ruling Peshwa dynasty is on its last legs in the Maratha empire. Young Vinayak and his mother endure poverty and exploitation in a small hut hidden from the sight of a crumbling mansion, with no hope of escape. He is the bastard son of a landlord whose own mother has been chained and cursed to live in a state of constant hunger and physical decay after her close encounter with a god-turned-demon, Hastar. Vinayak’s mother takes care of the old lady—she clips the long nails from her ugly toes, and feeds her while she is still asleep. When the old lady wakes, the line to put her to sleep is “Sleep, or Hastar will come.” There is a shrine devoted to Hastar and a secret treasure buried deep somewhere inside the mansion. Vinayak suspects only the old lady knows exact location of the treasure. Vinayak’s mother, however, forbids him from going anywhere near the old woman.
Vinayak’s mother visits the falling mansion to serve her master’s daily needs, which includes a hand job. Following the landlord’s death, her youngest son is killed in an accident—an unnecessary and poor choice for a plot device. Immediately Vinayak’s mother decides to leave Tumbbad for Pune, one of the jewel cities of the Maratha Empire, with a stolen gold coin from Hastar’s temple. When the boy suggests that they should stay in Tumbbad, speak to the old lady, and find the secret treasure, she is upset and furious. She doesn’t want to lose her only son; she makes him promise that he will never return to Tumbbad. To Vinayak’s credit, he does keep his promise until his mother's death.
In the second chapter of the film, however, Vinayak returns home to find the treasure. The opium trade, World War II, and colonialism find mention in this second chapter, when the film turns into an allegory of India’s journey from the clutch of feudalism to capitalism. While watching the film, it’s easy to miss both the context and the allegory. Vinayak finds the old woman and offers to put an end to her pitiful existence if she helps him find the secret treasure. She agrees. Back in Pune, we see Vinayak spend his newfound wealth on his lustful tastes, a new mistress, and India’s new crop of freedom fighter politicians. According to Barve, the final chapter explores the psyche of contemporary India. Now, the need of an individual has turned into an insatiable greed—Vinayak’s son trains hard, despite his physical deformity, to join his father on a treasure hunt. Unlike Vinayak, his son is not satisfied with a single gold coin or simple luxuries; the needs of independent India’s first generation are many, and all they think about is robbing the bank.
According to Tumbbad’s mythology, Hastar was the first child of the Goddess of Prosperity. When offered a choice between all the gold or all the food in the universe, Hastar first took the gold, and then tried to take away all the food from his brothers and sisters. The sixteen crore gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology punished him for his endless greed; he was not to be worshipped by people, and he lost his place in their pantheon. Vinayak’s forefathers take advantage of his curse—Hastar possesses all gold, but no food. They build a temple for him in the belly of the earth, to tempt him with food and steal his coins. “Hastar [doesn’t] scare me. Vinayak [does],” Barve said in an interview. “People are more scarier. Vinayak is the real threat—this is where Tumbbad is different than most films.”
Hastar is like a dragon that you must distract—if not kill—to earn your riches, and I have never liked these kind of stories, in which the fantastical monsters serve only one mindless purpose. Hastar doesn’t have any character arc or dialog—his mere appearance is supposed to be scarier; he is supposed to be the embodied force of greed and evil. Tumbbad suffers from such one-dimensional characters, linear editing, and a children’s fable-like plot. Tumbbad is 104 minutes of slow burn, and I don’t mean it as a compliment. There is simply no time for Barve's characters to grow, or the socio-political context of the ambitious plot to be explored in depth.
I’m not sure who is to blame, since in addition to Barve, the film also credits Mitesh Shah as a writer, and Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad as directors. In addition, the actor-producer Sohum Shah seems to have a mind of his own. Either way, the main writer-director, Barve, and the producer, Shah, clearly don’t watch too many horror films—at least that’s the impression their interviews give. In fairness, Tumbbad, they claim, isn’t one, but the film clearly suffers from their denial. The early part of the film is based on the stories of Narayan Dharap, a Marathi horror writer responsible for over a hundred books. According to Wikipedia, “Many of Dharap's stories were inspired from contemporary American authors including Stephen King. Shapath was a story inspired by King's It. Narayan Dharap was also the first Marathi author to bring H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu to Marathi readers.” King defined the horror genre in America and for the rest of the world, and if we don’t take the genre seriously, how can we hope to do its works justice?
On 12 October 2018, as Tumbbad opened at select Indian theaters, Netflix launched Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House on its global platform. While Tumbbad is as cinematic as it is obscene, The Haunting of Hill House clearly has more teeth. The four writers and three directors of Tumbbad are all male. Perhaps that’s why women in Tumbbad are mere objects of sex and conquest. Unlike Flanagan’s ensemble cast of independent, strong, and vocal American women, the women play secondary characters in the Indian film, and are clearly not protagonists of their own stories. The lines between the supernatural and the familiar are clearly defined in Tumbbad, whereas Flanagan disrupts the conventional narrative structures about time, space, and gender in The Haunting of Hill House. Tumbbad is bold and original in the regional context, but doesn’t offer much to a young Indian audience with an increasingly global taste. In contrast, The Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in all aspects of filmmaking, especially in its use of horror in the making of a psychological thriller. It seems so obvious now why Hindi cinema often fails. If Indian filmmakers like Barve are given more freedom and support, we can expect great, memorable, and important stories to come out of the many diverse regions and languages of the Indian subcontinent.
The journey from an impressive attempt like Tumbbad to a long-format series like True Detective, Stranger Things, or The Haunting of Hill House could take another decade for Indian filmmakers. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 is a brilliant example of a neo-noir psychological thriller; but films like this, and India's first Netflix series, The Sacred Games (co-directed by Kashyap), are exceptions. One suspects Kashyap might just be the writer-director-producer to do justice to the speculative genre. Indeed, Kashyap was the first producer who supported the Tumbbad project back in 2008, but had to back down for unknown reasons. I had the opportunity to read one of the early drafts of the screenplay of Tumbbad in his office back then, and I knew it would be unlike anything that I had seen coming out of Bollywood. At the time, I didn’t realize it would take someone as talented as Rahi Anil Barve more than a decade to make the film. I was this dreamy, clueless twenty-something in the mean streets of Bombay, and Kashyap’s office was like a magnet and refuge of sorts for the misfits and outsiders in the industry.
On the day of Tumbbad's release, I was in Pune—the home of India’s premier film school FTII, about three hours drive from Mumbai—where the film’s second and third chapters are set. The film was shot in the state of Maharastra, and its directors and main characters are Marathas, but thanks to the logic of film financing, they speak Hindi! While watching the film inside a theater chain at one of the flashiest malls in the city, I couldn't help wondering if the experience would have been more rooted, powerful, and even terrifying in the Marathi language. Sadly, the regional language can't support a “big-budget” film like Tumbbad yet—there isn’t enough local audience to recover the production cost, or so they say. But I do hope when this movie comes to Netflix or Amazon Prime, there will be a Marathi language audio version as well.
Speculative film and fiction in India seem to be beginning to come out of their infancies. The genre will no doubt benefit from the introduction of new blood and original minds with a passion to learn from and contribute to the best of horror and fantasy literature and cinema around the world. Now, the onus lies on the new and upcoming writers, filmmakers, and producers—along with the established names—to take the rules and conventions of the genre/s seriously, and strive to push all boundaries in fiction and film. If, that is, they are indeed inclined to and serious about shifting the goal posts set by their Asian, European, and American peers.
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