In my long years covering movies festivals in Europe and elsewhere, I have always observed that the Indian cinema which borders on the supernatural or magical or mystical always grabs the attention of festival programmers. I was not quite surprised to find the recent Venice Film Festival pick Rahi Anil Barve and Adesh Prasad's Hindi-language Tumbbad for their Critic's Week. For it borders on the mystic and the mythological, in a kind of magic realism, I think.
The ongoing second edition of the El Gouna Film Festival on Egypt's Red Sea Coast has also chosen Tumbbad for its main Competition section. The Festival Director, Intishal Al Timimi, has been raving about the movie.
Tumbbad is undoubtedly well made, with fine pieces of acting to suit the period it is set it – pre-independence India and later. To me what appeared most relevant about the film was the moral in it: greed and how it destroys a man, a fact that most Indians today can identify with. As The Hollywood Reporter's critic quipped: “Greed sends a man and his son to face down a demon in an Indian horror movie set during the British Raj. Totally fearless and rapaciously greedy, the larger-than-life hero of Tumbbad (played by actor and producer Sohum Shah) literally lowers himself into the womb of Mother Earth to fish for gold coins in the loincloth of the goddess’ bad-boy offspring. Not a movie for the squeamish or claustrophobic, this unusual blend of horror, fantasy and Indian folktales set in the 19th century British Raj recalls a revisited Brothers Grimm, along the lines of Matteo Garrone’s gorily memorable Tale of Tales. Viewers willing to make the imaginative leap into Indian folklore will be rewarded with the foggy atmosphere and turgid emotions of a story full of goose bumps and serious frights”.
Although the narrative is wee bit confusing, and the basis of the plot not very well explained, the tragedy of a man who went overboard with his quest for riches, more riches and still more riches is unmistakably clear. The Rao family lives in rural India in the late 19th century. Two brothers, Sadashiv and Vinayak, live with their widowed mother in sheer misery, and they have a chained monster, their great-grandmother, who needs to be fed when she is asleep.
And the story goes that a goddess had a greedy baby called Hastar, and since he had been stealing gold, the gods cursed him and said that he should never be worshipped. But the Raos ignored this and built a temple for Hastar, and generation after generation of the family had been also been stealing gold coins from Hastar. But in one accident, the great-grandmother got caught by Hastar and reduced to what she was, a sleeping monster.
Years later, Vinayak (Shah) returns to the temple, that had remained shut for years, and begins his adventures -- robbing gold coins from Hastar. The man gets richer over the years, but greed invariably claims its own pound of flesh. Vinayak's character has been etched with a lot of thought, and we see clearly how his only motive in life is money.
But the question is, are Indian ticket-paying masses enamoured of fairy tales? Because Tumbbad clearly belongs to this genre.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the El Gouna Film Festival.)