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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema

‘Tumbbad’ (2018): Diving into South Asian Horror

Directed by: Rahi Anil Barve || Produced by: Sohum Shah, Aanand L. Rai, Anand Gandhi, Mukesh Shah, Amita Shah

Screenplay by: Mitesh Shah, Adesh Prasad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi || Starring: Sohum Shah, Jyoti Malshe, Deepak Damle, Anita Date-Kelkar

Music by: Ajay-Atul, Jesper Kyd || Cinematography: Pankaj Kumar || Edited by: Sanyukta Kaza || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 104 minutes

Dig deep enough into any large film industry on the planet and you’ll find exceptional filmmaking trends, movements, and subcultures that contrast with whatever the dominant film production standard is at the time. The bigger the film industry, the more transgressive movements they’re likely to have and the greater absolute numbers of weird, sidestream, niche films they’ll produce; that still doesn’t mean films that general audiences prefer don’t dominate in those markets or that national film cultures don’t get stereotyped by their most successful, best marketed mainstream films, because both situations are indeed the default. The United States’ big-budget, FX-heavy Hollywood blockbusters dominate (its horror films to a somewhat lesser degree) its cinematic culture the way fantasycomedies and military propaganda films dominant mainland China as France is most famous for its extreme, controversial thrillers and weird social dramas like musical melodramas top the Indian film market.

Top: The protagonist’s mother, Jyoti Malshe, observes the cremation of her village patriarch toward the end of the first act. Bottom: Piyush Kaushik, under heavy makeup, demonstrates the consequences of Tumbbad’s diegetic curse.

An interesting exception to India’s musical filmmaking rule, one that’s more successful than the subject of my previous review, Kumari (2022), is the directorial debut of Rahi Anil Barve, Tumbbad. Named after the eponymous Marathi village and based on various campfire stories told to Barve by childhood peers familiar with popular Marathi novelists, Tumbbad represents the antithesis, both in concept and execution, of most every stereotype of Indian cinema in general and Hindi-language Bollywood in particular. Barve’s creation is a straightforward horror film of the supernatural variety; it features realistic, grounded performances but no song-and-dance numbers of any kind, and is less than two hours long (it’s about 104 minutes). The movie feels akin to not just the aforementioned Kumari but also the action film Kaithi (2019), as well as the period fantasy Bulbbul (2020) in its disinterest in standard North or South Indian filmmaking tropes. Depending on where you sit, Tumbbad perhaps should’ve been a Netflix Original Film like Bulbbul so it could’ve reached a wider market and given the yearslong trouble cowriter-director Barve had securing funds for the project. I would’ve never heard of the picture myself had I not stumbled upon a random discussion thread on the subreddit, rMalayalamMovies, where users mentioned Kumari’s stylistic similarities to the 2018 Hindi film.

Tumbbad invigorates its traditional three-act structure with a multigenerational family narrative that stretches across multiple decades before and after India’s independence. Act One begins in 1918 with its protagonist as a young teenager (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar), teasing its supernatural horror without spoiling the overarching narrative’s central mystery; Act Two fast-forwards to 1933 with its young adult lead, producer-star Sohum Shah, who digs (literally) into the movie’s diegetic haunted house to uncover a nice genre metaphor for human ambition, greed, and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.

Top to bottom, Tumbbad’s solid freaking script anchors its realistic, relatable characters by way of reasonable motivations as well as natural dialogue. Exposition is limited yet organic when necessary, so the audience understands the rules of the supernatural plot-devices (the spooky stuff) that our main characters face without asking who’s doing what, why, when, or how. The main plot revelation of Act Two is timed perfectly to develop multiple character arcs and then segue into an exciting Act Three in 1947 after raising the narrative’s stakes. The script escalates tension almost perfectly throughout.

That tension is partially a function of the movie’s great look, in which extreme low-lit interiors and natural outdoor lighting inform the film’s tone. When you’re not impressed by how Tumbbad’s illuminated, you’ll appreciate Pankaj Kumar’s great location-photography that meshes period details with an impressive number of extras and minor characters, all of which go a long way toward convincing you this isn’t another 90-minute A24 horror movie based around 2-4 castmembers. Last but not least, Tumbbad’s horror aesthetic features a wide variety of practical FX and extensive makeup prosthetics that compare well with more recognizable major studio horror movies with far greater budgets.

Did I dislike anything here? Well, the opening act features too much unmotivated handheld camerawork for my taste, distracting from the initial drama somewhat with that infamous floating frame during dialogue-driven scenes. A major villainous character later in the film is also portrayed using mediocre computer generated imagery (CGI) when the aforementioned makeup and costume-design probably would’ve sufficed. Oh, and the film really could’ve used a brief epilogue to better explore its ending, making Tumbbad thus far the only Indian movie I’ve ever seen I thought was too short.

The film’s lead actor and producer, Sohum Shah, doesn’t enter the film until the second act, but commands the screen once he does.

Indian cinema still has a long way to go before its purebred genre movies, or at least its simpler genre-hybrids, outpace its masala films and broad, watered down melodramas — not that the industry even needs to make such a shift, of course. My personal preference for straightforward horror, action, science-fiction, or thriller movies coincides with those movies’ lower though not chump budgets, simpler, less bloated screenplays, and general dependence on creative diegetic premises. Films like Tumbbad, Kumari, or Bulbbul thus speak to different studio expectations than musical ensembles that feature bits of every genre in the book, but I’d argue the former tend to be less financially risky than the latter while still incorporating their parent industry’s native cultural aesthetics (i.e. though Tumbbad is very much a horror film in the traditional sense, it still feels like an “Indian horror film”).


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Tumbbad strikes the right balance between its commitment to traditional genre formula and taking advantage of its South Asian cultural backdrop. It maintains excellent pacing, realistic characterizations, and a cool central horror plot device, while first-time feature filmmaker Rahi Barve captures this effective screenplay with diverse lighting techniques and impressive body horror makeup, costume, and set-design.

However… Barve compromises with unnecessary unstabilized handheld camerawork during the first act and a CGI character that should’ve been realized through other means. The film runs out of money after its final set-piece.


? As far as I’m concerned, Shah earned all that gold fair and square.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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