Human fears are universal, but the expression of those fears is different in every culture — which can be a lot of fun for horror fans. There comes a point where being too steeped in your own culture’s horror stories can undercut the feelings of unfamiliarity and surprise that the genre depends on. Looking to another country for culturally specific fresh takes on scary tropes — like Japan’s Ringu, Spain’s The Orphanage, Iceland’s Lamb, or Taiwan’s Incantation — lets horror fans encounter familiar shocks dressed up in vivid new ways capable of digging under even the most jaded skin. Along the way, they can also learn fascinating things about how many different ways there are to shape and share the same fears.
That’s one of the great joys of Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve’s stunning 2018 Hindi-language horror story about gods, greed, and gore. The raw bones of this movie are familiar enough: man gives into his vices, man faces a supernatural accounting. But the specific shape that story takes, and the imagery used to lay it out, will be unfamiliar to Western audiences. And the graphic, chilling details hit particularly hard because they’re so unexpected. It’s a superb Halloween-season discovery.
India has a long but relatively narrow history with horror movies, and Tumbbad was a hit on release there, likely because it’s so eerie, insistent, and streamlined, and yet so quintessentially an Indian story, rooted in the country’s history and its specific traumas. The story’s three chapters each have different major secrets and discoveries, and they each have a slightly different flavor of horror.
The first is a simple bump-in-the-night fable, packed with sudden shocks and gruesome practical effects. The second feels far more Lovecraftian, with a protagonist knowingly infecting himself with terrible knowledge and accepting the effect on his psyche. It helps that the story centers around a forbidden, lost god named Hastar, a name that doesn’t actually come from Indian mythology, but will certainly be familiar to fans of H.P. Lovecraft and his followers, even if he’s been reskinned. And the third chapter builds perfectly on the intense shocks of the first two, with one of the most shudder-inducing reveals modern horror has to offer. Even so, it’s more about creeping dread and inevitability than about jump-scares or graphic violence.
In the first — set in 1918, against the background of Mahatma Gandhi’s early rebellions against British rule — young brothers Vinayak and Sadashiv Rao chafe against poverty in the rural town of Tumbbad. They live in the shadow of a vast, decaying mansion owned by a decrepit hermit named Sarkar, who’s secretly their father. But he’s never acknowledged them, or his connection with their mother (Jyoti Malshe), who’s been his servant and mistress for decades.
Sarkar’s mansion supposedly holds a hidden family fortune. Vinayak in particular feels entitled to a share of the money, which represents not only an escape from his family’s hand-to-mouth life, but the respect and pride of place he longs for as a rich man’s son. Instead, his inheritance is a mysterious obligation to a monstrous old woman who’s chained up in his home, in his mother’s care. The family speaks about her with dread and awe, the way they’d speak about a boogeyman who needs to be propitiated — and as it turns out, with good reason.
The second chapter opens 15 years later, during a tumultuous time for the British Raj. Now an adult (and played by Bollywood producer Sohum Shah), Vinayak returns to Tumbbad, seeking the fortune he never found as a child — and the old, chained woman, who he sees differently as an adult. Soon afterward, he returns to his wife in the vast, sprawling city of Pune, and he brings mysterious gold coins with him. Looking to sell the coins, he enters into an ill-fated deal with Raghav (Deepak Damle), a friend, moneylender, and merchant who’s hoping to bribe his way into a profitable opium-dealing license. Both men are driven by greed and a desire to better their positions, and both of them suffer for it.
The final chapter begins in 1947, shortly after Partition, which has rocked India, but barely touched Vinayak and his family. Vinayak is aging at this point, and has to decide what to pass on to the young son who worships him and constantly strains to please him. Vinayak is reluctant to part with the family secret, but as always, his greed makes it impossible to discard the idea entirely. All of which leaves Tumbbad sprawling across three generations — and by implication, many, many more. The open question writer-director Rahi Anil Barve asks — the question he started exploring in 1997, when he wrote his first draft of the film at age 18 — is what it takes to stop the cycle of avarice that destroys families and countries with equal alacrity.
All three chapters work together neatly as a kind of dark fairy tale about greed — where it comes from, how it perpetuates itself, and how it can act like a drug, overwhelming the senses and getting its victims addicted. Shah plays Vinayak as a contemptuous, abusive man who mostly thinks about his own petty pleasures and expects everyone to serve him. He’s cruel and selfish, as much the villain of the piece as the dark god his family serves.
But Barve and his team suggest some sympathy for him, too, given where he came from. The fable that opens the film says the gods cursed Tumbbad because of Vinayak’s family, and that the perpetual rains engulfing the place are a form of divine wrath. Those storms figure prominently in Barve’s sharp, lurid imagery throughout the film: Whether visiting the Tumbbad mansion or huddling in their own hovel, Vinayak and his mother and brother are perpetually soaked to the skin and plastered in mud. (Barve says he shot the film over the course of several years during monsoon season, to get the right atmosphere.) The family doesn’t comment on the rain, because it’s the perpetual backdrop of their lives, but they all look chilled, diluted, and on the verge of washing away entirely. It’s entirely clear why Vinayak dreams of escape, and the wealth to live however he wants.
But Tumbbad lays out a rich metaphor for the ways those dreams leech most of the freedom and happiness out of Vinayak’s life, leaving him in a perpetual nightmare where he dwells on the cost of his wealth, and resents everyone around him who shares in it without paying the price he pays. He can’t let go of his riches, but he can’t fully enjoy them either, which leads him to worse and worse excesses. Crucial history is happening all around him, and his country is suffering, changing, and strengthening, but he’s insulated and isolated himself by focusing only on his own gain. It’s a beautifully crafted trap, built into the heart of an equally beautifully crafted story, where the supernatural horrors are outright terrifying, but Vinayak is far scarier.
Barve makes sure that all of this hits home by presenting it with a visual richness and lushness that will keep his viewers’ eyes pinned on the screen. He shot in real abandoned rural locations to give the Tumbbad setting its lonely but stately texture, and wherever possible, he relies on practical effects to give it weight. When CGI does feature, especially in the film’s explosive climax, it’s deliberately contrasted with physical effects to make the action more uncanny and disturbing, rather than trying to blend in with the rest of his world.
The colors in Tumbbad are unbeatable, particularly the ghastly, raw reds that define Vinayak’s secret and its price. And the imagery is equally vivid, leading to unforgettable moments that even longtime horror fans won’t have seen on screen before. All horror is meant to take audiences out of their comfort zones, and let them feel threatened by the unknown and unfamiliar. Tumbbad, with its reliance on the flavor of Indian myth and the shape of Indian history, just takes them further than most horror stories. In the process, it leads into stranger, darker, and more exultant places.
Tumbbad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.