For a certain set of moviegoers, we’re always on the search for something unclassifiable. Typically this is because the earliest horror films to us were just that. Horror by its very nature is a phantasmagorical peek behind the curtain of our fears and anxieties, and something we’re unaccustomed to in comparison to youth cinema. We can wrap our brains around Back To the Future and even Ghostbusters (‘bustin simply makes us feel good!), but when faced with a film like Evil Dead or The Exorcist, something bends in our brains and we can never look at a film quite the same way again.
But also when faced with something unclassifiable, we generally attempt to make sense of it in the only way we can: to classify it. And while Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi, and Adesh Prasad, the trio of directors behind Tumbbad, may have created a film with shades of early Sam Raimi mixed with the powerful dark fables of Guillermo del Toro, it is wholly its own beast.
Tumbbad is told over multiple chapters and spans the life of Vinayak (Sohum Shah). As a boy growing up in the small Indian village of Tumbbad, his mother was the charge of her own mother: an old woman cursed to sleep forever, her family cursed to feed her lest she wakes up from her slumber. You see, years before, grammie attempted to find the great treasure of Hastar, mother Earth’s first born son who through corruption stole the world’s wealth, but was shackled before he could spirit away the worlds sustenance. He’s kept alive on the condition that he be forgotten forever, never to be worshiped by a mortal, but human greed is a powerful corrupter, and soon his name is once again on the hushed lips of those who know his true powers. Hastar may have a loincloth filled with gold coins, but one touch will turn you immortal. But not like Highlander immortal, more like Skinless Frank from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser immortal. It’s not a pretty sight.
The strengths behind Tumbbad lie within its narrative, but that story is only supported by a structure of realism and cinematography that grounds the films heightened macabre theatricality. The film, rumored to be shot over the course of six years, breathes in the arid landscapes of an India on the brink of post-colonialism. The barren journey Vinayak takes mimics the isolation of Hastar’s keep, a tenant of possession films used marvelously here to emphasize the leads self-imposed imprisonment to the fallen God. These greedy desires are made complex by Shah’s pointed performance as patriarch Vinayak. While we want to see him persevere and continue providing for his family, he’s a man built on the back of toxic ideology. That we can even care for a man we grow to hate, and pity, is a testament to Shah’s character work. And this teetering is what I find so morosely real about the film: the idea that no man is wholly good or evil, greedy or ascetic, but rather we’re constantly struggling in this grey area. The whole of Tumbbad lives within moral ambiguity.
The film crafts a truly original story that, as stated above, remains unclassifiable. If I were to offer a summation that gets close to identifying the tone of the film it’d be a cross section of Guillermo del Toro’s violent fairy tales mixed with the folk horror of South Korean cinema like The Wailing. But classifying this film is less important than recognizing it. Westerners are typically accustomed to one type of Indian film: the Bollywood musical. High energy music filled with sappy romantic plots and dope dance moves, the films have a style similar to the golden age of the Hollywood musical. But Tumbbad offers us an Indian film about Indian culture, removed of the trappings of the musical and replaced with stories of little known Indian theology.
It makes sense to dig from this lesser-known religious well. The recent film Hereditary has the story of the demon Paemon to create a starkly new tale bristling with Americana. Here Tumbbad does the same for Hastar’s tale. By offering us a villain whose narrative hinges on our lack of knowledge about it, the creatives are able to craft their story without needing its audience to completely understand the myth.
Tumbbad is just the latest example as to why we need more diversity in American cinemas. This is a fascinating rarely told story and it could only be given it’s due in a foreign market willing to take the narrative risk on something Hollywood execs would be too unfamiliar with. But by having more diversity in our own cinemas, we can finally begin to discover new stories. If you are tired of remakes, reboots, and sequels then I implore you to care about more diversity in your entertainment. If we are supposed to be the great melting pot, our cinemas should reflect that dream too.