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  • Writer's pictureAtomicRakshasi

Monstrous Fathers and Wayward Sons: ‘Tumbbad’ is More than Just a Parable About Greed

Tumbbad movie poster

(2018) Director: Rahi Anil Barve

Vinayak’s mother, head shorn and red sari clinging to her frame, cuts a lone figure in the pouring rain. She’s waiting in the courtyard of an ancestral home at the command of her feudal lord. The gold coin sitting in the hands of the infant god on the altar is her reward, provided he is satisfied with her service. It’s a chance at a second life for a widow if she serves his sexual needs indefinitely.

But it’s been twelve years and Vinayak is old enough to know that his mother has no status and therefore, neither does he. A lack of status here means poverty, and the only way out of this dual prison of inferior social rank and bondage is the acquisition of wealth: quick, unearned and cursed with suffering.

The sons of Tumbbad are defective creatures. Hastar, the beloved offspring of the Goddess of Prosperity, has a craving for his mother’s gifts of gold and wheat. When the other children have had enough of him, about to destroy him and scatter the pieces across the firmament, his mother comes to his rescue and traps him inside her womb, promising them that he will be forgotten. The promise didn’t last as the Sarkar of Tumbbad builds an altar to Hastar, again, angering the other gods. As punishment for worshipping the delinquent god, the village of Tumbbad is plagued with incessant rain, giving the backdrop a gothic, parochial feeling that could make any indie movie-lover weak in the knees.

Life is complicated for the unacknowledged son. His father doesn’t care if he exists and the knowledge chafes at his psyche, mutilating it over time. He’s intelligent and looking for a way out, but he has no legal rights to the dynastic property. He has to fill that growing void and even when his brother dies, it’s all he can think about. His impotent greed surfaces the same way it has plagued the family for generations, and the four-hundred-year-old matriarch hidden away in a dingy house is the only one who knows where the rest of the treasure is hidden. She’s ancient, monstrous and cursed with immortal life, and she warns him about what’s to come.

The mothers: the goddess, the old matriarch, Vinayak’s mother and his wife, are all moral gatekeepers in this story but have no power over their wayward sons. Vinayak, so excellently played by Sohum Shah, has no qualms about becoming the very thing he despises. He softens at the sight of the woman clad in the red sari, rescued from sati the same way his mother was and turns her into his mistress. His son Pandurang follows suit, his clubfoot is his own psychic mutilation and he tries desperately to show his father his worth by outdoing him at every vice. Tumbbad might sell itself as a parable about greed, but its flawed characters outshine the principal theme.

The monstrous feminine has a significant presence here. The movie employs several aspects of maternal horror: the dark, claustrophobic recesses of the goddess’s womb, her son’s entrapment, and the bodies of victims putrefying against its walls, but the true villain in this movie is the father figure. The timeline follows the chronological events in a country that takes any shape its conqueror moulds it into: the British Raj builds itself onto a feudal base it found convenient to exploit and the central government continues the rampant acquisition of land after Independence. Any which way, Vinayak has to serve a more powerful master and his access to Hastar’s secret gold is about to end.

Hastar, named after Hastur, borrowed from Stephen King’s short story Gramma, with the black entity from Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos, formed the inspiration for this story. However, it doesn’t fail in the originality of plot and character design and to add to that, it’s set in the past with charming antique props that further establish the time period. The soundtrack has its own story, adding to the dizzying tilt from the entrance of the goddess’s womb through the pulsating enclosure of the live, sinewy red walls. A dramatic element that comes into play à la Chekhov’s gun, defines the beginning and end, and I’m sinking into my seat and watching through the gaps between my fingers. I’m overwhelmed, unable to bear the abject horror… and I don’t want anything bad to happen to these wayward sons.

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