What I’m Watching: Tumbbad (2017)

I’m a total sucker for the folk horror genre. Creepy maypole dancing, villagers staring out of windows at the newly arrived city slicker, Christopher Lee in a floral dress: what’s not to love?

But of late I’ve been trying to range a bit further than the archetypical British Isles setting. After all, everyone around the world is ‘folk’ and folk everywhere like a scare or two. Couldn’t say, Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with their city-slicker protagonists trespassing somewhere rural where people do things different (to put it mildly) count as folk horror?

As chance would have it some entity- either an online friend or a blog post, damned if I can recall now- recommended the Hindi movie Tumbbad (2017) as a non-Brit folk horror. Then when Amazon Prime recommended it to me I knew it was time to dive in.

Tumbbad, I’m embarrassed to say, is my first non-Bollywood Indian movie, by which I mean the Bollywood of elaborate musical numbers and daunting running times. I’ve seen more than my share of those and Tumbbad they ain’t. Classic Bollywood, for example, doesn’t typically feature decrepit brahmins getting hand-jobs in rotting mansions, not if my memory of Mr India or Amar Akbar Anthony is accurate at any rate.

It doesn’t do mounting supernatural dread either, something that Tumbbad is committed to and generally achieves. Young Vinayak and his brother live in a little house in an eternally rainy and near-desolate village called Tumbbad with their mum and grandmother. Trouble is, grandmother is a scabrous, deathless cannibal who has to be chained up in a cell and have rusty nails through her jaws. One night granny breaks free while mum is out servicing the aforementioned local nabob and Vinayak has to take charge of the situation, scared as he is.

But that’s just the start. Tummbad is composed of three chapters, all connected, all following the life of Vinayak, each with a beginning and end (I dare say you could watch it as separate episodes over three nights). The heart of Tumbbad’s horror lies in the second chapter which, when it came, genuinely hit me sideways and creeped me out. Such a three part structure, vaguely reminiscent of both Call Of Cthulhu and portmanteau Hammer Horror movies, really works for a horror film: Tumbbad never sags.

Director Rahi Anil Barve seems to be infusing Hindu mythology with elements of the weird tale canon and not a little of its sensibilities. The main horror, for instance, is Hastar, a child of the goddess Lakshmi (or so local folklore claims) whom should never be worshipped nor spoken of. Cthulu mythos fans will note the similarity to Hastur The Unspeakable. It’s notable the movie’s production company is called Colour Yellow, an allusion to Robert W Chambers’ The King In Yellow perhaps?

But the heart of this dark fantasy is Indian folk tale, at least as far as I can see. Barve got the seed of his story while camping with a friend, the telling of which made him ‘crap his pants’, an anecdote I like to take figuratively. Like any good folk tale there’s a sense of isolation, of the story’s characters making choices in an empty place, and of the supernatural phenomenon having a clear set of rules. Naturally like all folk tales there’s a moral lesson too.

Vinayak’s greatest motivation is avarice. He wants to be rich and he wants to be seen to be rich. With Vinayak greed is a bottomless pit that threatens the people around him and ultimately himself and those he loves. Tumbbad is set during the last few decades of British India and highlights an aspect of the British Empire and all empires: they conquer and they terrorise but they also seduce.

They seduce a minority of the conquered, those whose spirits were always corruptible, who obsess about how to milk the new regime for personal gain and to the detriment of their own community and nation. Such people can always be found.

Hastar is a metaphor for the British Empire and its effects on the corruptible. To say any more will spoil the film. It’s a film worth watching; not without faults but full of surprises and dark imagination. It may not be to your taste but it’s certainly stuck with me. I keep thinking about it long after I’ve seen it. Which is what folk horror should do.

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