'Tumbbad' Struggles to Live up to Its Cinematographic Splendour

After a point, the film's thematic and narrative emptiness begin to disappoint and you end up feeling like an unfortunate character in the movie: so close to the treasure – you can sense it, see it, admire it – yet so far.

Tumbbad opens with a famous Mahatma Gandhi quote, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.” This line cannot be more relevant in the current cultural climate, where we regularly debate the vices of capitalism, the desecration of nature, the callousness of people. But Tumbbad isn’t a dystopia in the strict sense of the word: it is not set in a (near distant) future; it is set is the past, from 1918 to 1947, warning us of the present. Tumbbad is a horror film because it tells us how little we’ve changed.

Directed by Rahi Anil Bharve (creative director Anand Gandhi), Tumbbad is divided into three chapters. The first unfolds in 1918, in a village called Tumbbad, in Western India. The second cuts to more than a decade later, in Pune in the 1930s, and concludes with the final chapter, in independent India, in 1947. According to the film, even 100 years ago, nature – as if vociferously protesting the incipient greed of mankind – was an unforgiving and unrelenting force. In Tumbbad, rains don’t fall as much as they lash. The clouds are perpetually dark, casting their sullen looks on the people who have begun to fail themselves. The only conversation here, if at all, revolves around a mythic treasure.

The setting in such a film, as the cliché goes, is a character in itself: observing, imposing, threatening to explode. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, whose previous notable films include Ship of Theseus, Haider and Daddy, has been a striking recent revelation in Hindi cinema. In Tumbbad too, the visuals are striking – the decaying blue of clouds, the sprawling grey of the landscape – hinting at a muted pervasive discontent, often enlivened by a single source of light (from a lantern, a headlight, a flaming torch), which imprison and haunt us – at times assure us.

But the film, especially its acting (in the first chapter) and writing, fails to live up to its cinematographic splendour. With sparse dialogues and a small ancient lore, Bharve sets up the stakes with minimal fuss. But the acting here (involving Jyoti Malshe and two child actors) isn’t as impressive, failing to distill the anxiety and indecision and confusion of people stranded between fear and greed. That changes when Sohum Shah (playing the adult role of one of the kids obsessed with the treasure) enters the film. Shah, who’s also produced Tumbbad, was a highpoint of Ship of Theseus and has since acted in supporting roles in two films (Talvar and Simran), where he was a reassuring presence. In Tumbbad, he gets a much bigger – and vicious – part, whose vileness isn’t immediately apparent.

Even though the level of acting elevates, the writing remains as static, casting little light on the mindscape of its protagonist, Vinayak Rao (Shah), and his personal (often intricate, dangerous) relationship with greed. Sure, Vinayak becomes a spendthrift and a philanderer, but that is all surface-level detail. We never get a fair sense of his wholeness, of him as a person. The same holds true for other characters as well – his wife (Anita Date), his mistress (Ronjini Chakraborty), his business associate – who, like Vinayak, are largely opaque. Even its central motif – the transformative and destructive powers of greed – remains superficial to a large part, rendering the film one-note and monotonous.

Some storytelling stagnancy could be deliberate, as evidenced by a crucial climactic reveal and there are some hints in between, telling us that Tumbbad is a critique of brahmanical supremacy (with their careful control of narratives and resources), but it is not enough to make us ponder and, as a result, consistently intrigue us. The film corrects some of that in its third act, where we see the true consequences of greed, through the stark transformation of Vinayak’s child, but by then you also feel it’s a little too late. This segment is, in fact, easily the best part of the film, where its true dynamism comes to the fore: there’s horror, some comedy and a creeping sense of human depravity, which feels unsettling.

Watching Tumbbad is an arresting experience for sure, but after a point its thematic and narrative emptiness begin to disappoint and you end up feeling like an unfortunate character in the movie: so close to the treasure – you can sense it, see it, admire it – yet so far.