The Rao family lives in Western India, but H.P. Lovecraft would probably feel comfortable in their hardscrabble village. It constantly rains there and ancient gods torment mortals nearly as often. Vinayak Rao really can’t complain, because he basically asked for it. In order to discover the fabled family treasure, he must also take on the dreaded family curse in Rahi Anil Barve & Adesh Prasad’s Tumbbad (trailer here), which screens during this year’s 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.
For complicated reasons, Rao’s mother cares for the monstrous grandmother of her lover, his illegitimate father. Granny cannot die, because she has been cursed by an ancient god. The old dear is always ravenous, but she will conk out like Pavlov’s dog if you tell her: “go to sleep or Hastar will get you.” However, Rao does not want her to sleep. He wants her to tell him where the treasure is, but he will have to wait until he can return to his father’s abandoned castle as a grown man to renew their conversation.
The good news is the treasure really is there. The bad news is Rao will have to perform a complicated ritual to keep Hastar at bay every time he wants to “withdraw” some gold coins. Of course, a greedy cad like Rao is always willing to risk his life and soul for financial gain.
It is hard to pigeon-hole Tumbbad in a genre box, because it incorporates elements of horror, dark fantasy, and moral fables. Regardless, Barve, Prasad, and co-screenwriters Mitesh Shah and Anand Gandhi create one heck of an ominous world. It is also pretty ambitious filmmaking, encompassing nearly thirty years of Indian history, with each of the three chapters vividly reflecting the tenor of its respective era.
The genre elements are also exceedingly weird. It probably will not scare horror fans, like Halloween or The Exorcist did the first (or maybe fiftieth) time you saw them, but it is all just very strange and disconcerting. There is also an element of EC Comics morality at play, because the filmmakers clearly beg to differ with Gordon Gekko. They do not think greed is good at all, but rather the seed of everyone’s downfall instead.
Producer Sohum Shah is sufficiently intense and mercurial to hold his own against an evil elder god like Hastar. Deepak Damle is also spectacularly sleazy as Rao’s loan shark-gold-dealer-opium-broker Raghav. Watching him scheme and kvetch is quite amusing, even though we immediately assume he will come to a bad end, because obviously.
Tumbbad is just soaked in malevolent moodiness and ancient evil, which is why it is so cool. It is a very distinctive macabre fable, but anyone from any cultural background can appreciate its grim logic and massively heavy karma. Recommended for fans of the dark fantastical, Tumbbad screens this Saturday (11/3) as part of the 2018 3rd i in San Francisco.