There is nothing worse than a fallen god. A corrupt human or demon will have limits to their corruption and greed. But a fallen god has no such ethics binding him. His wretchedness is unparalleled, don’t you think?” asks Rahi Anil Barve, director of Tumbbad, which released to critical acclaim last week. Set in the imaginary village of Tumbbad, the film, starring Sohum Shah (of Ship of Theseus, Talvar, Simran fame) in the lead, is a cautionary tale about greed told through the mystery-thriller genre, with elements of horror, fantasy, references to Hindu mythology and the Victorian literary trope of “mad woman in the attic”.
The fallen god question is Hastar, who, according to Hindu mythology was banished to the womb of the mother goddess for being too greedy — for food and gold. Yet his legend and that of his treasure keeps growing until it reaches the ears of the adolescent Vinayak. Faced by abject poverty, he decides to question the mysterious older woman chained in the inner room of their home. Young Vinayak’s quest for amassing gold remains insatiable as a tragedy forces the family to move to Poona. Vinayak returns to Tumbbad as an adult, still fuelled by his old quest. “The idea of Tumbbad has been festering inside me since 1993. A friend had narrated a short story by Marathi writer Narayan Dharap while we were in the jungles of Nagzira. I, then, read another story by him. The first half hour of the film is very much from the universe of Dharap’s stories,” says the 38-year-old director.
Divided in three chapters, the film is set in the early 1920s. It shows an India that is in constant turmoil, grappling with new world orders. “For me, the film was never just about Vinayak’s personal quest. It was rather the journey of India, as we see it today,” says Barve. There’s a scathing dig at the illicit opium trade between a British official and an influential member of the clergy, while the princely states and their disintegration and loss of power find a mention too. “The film starts when the Peshwai era is on its last legs. They ruled us for about 100 years, and vanished. That’s the first chapter, about the generation of Vinayak’s mother, when India was still feudal. She — the mother as well as the country — is exploited, but they are happy to just get one mudra (gold coin).
The second chapter begins with an adult Vinayak who wants more. The world of that time is dealing with World War II and the repercussions of imperialism. The final chapter is about the third generation — Vinayak’s children — who are not satisfied with luxuries alone, they want to rob the bank. At the same time, India has become independent, and we see the country embracing capitalism. For me, the period between 1920s and 1940s is the most important in our history, as it set the tone for the India we see today.”
To call the film, which has been 10 years in the making, a labour of love would be an understatement. It has gone off the floors three times and shifted production hands. Barve even shot for a day with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who was to be cast as Vinayak. “Tumbbad was green-lit by seven studios, who loved the idea of the film and then backed out. I had no frame of reference for them, nothing like Tumbbad had even been tried before. I don’t blame them, after all it involved crores of rupees. No one believed in me or the film save Anurag Kashyap, who tried for four years. I was then rescued by Sohum Shah, who came on board as the producer,” says Barve. “Even after Sohum came on board, it took us three years to shoot, since I only wanted to shoot during July-August — to get that distinct slate grey texture of an overcast sky. We would stand waiting for the clouds, the entire unit of around 300 people, including Sohum, who, at times I forgot, was also the producer.”
Barve’s Hastar is something Indian cinema has never seen before. The film also breaks away from the time-tested tricks of the horror genre like white sari-clad women and creaky doors. “Fear is one of the most primal emotion and instinct that we humans have, I feel that it’s bigger than sexual desire or even hunger. We have evolved through fear. It’s fear that propelled us from our caveman existence to now, fear makes us discover things,” he says.
Barve is a self-taught filmmaker, who started with animation and then made Manjha, a 40-minute short film. Manjha was liked by Danny Boyle so much that it is an additional feature in the Blu-ray release of Boyle’s Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). “I was dyslexic and I did not attend school after Class X. I did a number of odd jobs, and then ventured into animation. I worked on many international projects like Iron Man, Spider-Man,” says Barve. The film has had a deep personal cost for the director, who battled depression, alcohol and drug addiction, bankruptcy and ridicule by his peers. Barve was born and raised in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. Like his film’s lead, Barve, too, is a Konkanastha Brahmin. He clarifies, “I am 75 per cent Konkanastha Brahmin, 25 per cent Afghan and 100 per cent atheist and scientific. We do not believe in paranormal-mystical things. I have only seen like three-four horror films,” says Barve.
For now, in spite of the good reviews, Barve is anxious about the box-office collection. “Because if Tumbbad does well, maybe producers and big studios won’t back away from other such projects. My next films — Rakht Brahmand and Meinsabha — are multicrore projects. Tumbbad’s success will define how these projects take shape. Producers backed away because nothing like Tumbbad had been made before, but, tell me, isn’t it reason enough for the film to be made?” he asks.