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Tumbbad – Getting Fantasy Right


We did a whole piece earlier in the week on the Hindi fantasy films. As we came to the final three films of the list, we were scraping at the bottom of the bowel. Frankly, we were not happy with the kind of movies we mentioned towards the end of the list.

However, for better or worse, the names on the list are accurate. The scene of fantasy movies in India is very bad. The only notable fantasy Bollywood movies are rip-offs. This pains me a lot as it puts Indian creators in a category of frauds and copy-artists.

The bad movies we have to talk about when we speak about fantasy films from Indian creators is painful. This is why we have to talk about Tumbbad. In a pile of garbage, Tumbbad is an original story which combines masterful storytelling with a dark morose tone unseen in Hindi cinema. Better still, Tumbbad comes from Indian literary origins. The script of the film and its central antagonist, Hastar, is based on a story by Marathi writer Narayan Dharap.

The Rains of Tumbbad

From the very beginning, Tumbbad is a movie on a mission. It doesn’t waste time typical horror movies do when they show a happy family moving in. It shows its dysfunctionality from the very first minute.

In the backdrop of dark clouds, rain, a rotting fort, and dark soulful music, we begin Tumbbad. The desperate situation of the family is clear from the very first minute. The audience is given no room to breathe.

A woman gives a hand job to a strange man who worships a strange idol and lives in a fort, a monster is fed by the same woman, and two bald young boys trying to figure out things; this is the first twenty minutes of Tumbbad. All this is happening under a grey sky in a remote village called Tumbbad where it always bloody rains.

From the very first minute, Tumbbad takes over its audience. It doesn’t pull its punches and add filler scenes. Every part of the film moves it forward. The little mysteries of the film slowly reveal themselves and don’t tease the audience a lot. In fact, Tumbbad has one quality very few movies these days, in Bollywood and Hollywood, do. It is able to retain the complete attention and devotion of its audience despite not promising any kind of a major revelation at the end.

This is a great quality as it portrays the quality of the movie as a whole, not just the plot. The background score, direction, cinematography, and editing all come together for the perfect product at the end.

The Theme

As a film, Tumbbad is not very complex. It is a straightforward film about an ancient legend and how one family gets caught on it.

The genius of the story doesn’t lie in its plot. Instead, the real genius is doing justice to the plot and not going on any side quests.

Generally, filmmakers make the mistake of beefing up a story’s plot. Sometimes, this works. However, most of the time these efforts end up disrupting the story.

Thugs of Hindustan

Let’s take the example of Thugs of Hindustan. Stripping away all the nonsense, Thugs of Hindustan is about a princess winning back her throne from the East India Company. That’s it. There is nothing more to it. The theme of the story is a battle for freedom.

The Characters

Now look at the choice of characters in the story. The casting of Amitabh Bachchan as a serious commander is spot on. To lead a battle for freedom, you need a commander and his character is a natural fit. The other people part of the battle are also well-chosen. Fatima Sana Shaikh plays the princess who is fighting for the throne of her father. As far as character goals and arcs are concerned, everything is fine until now. We have all the elements to write a story about how a princess will win back her throne.

The Appendix

Then there’s Aamir Khan. In a serious struggle for freedom, a character like Aamir Khan has no place. All the elements to help the plot reach its conclusion are already there. The addition of Aamir Khan spoils the movie in two ways – first, it takes away from the primary arc of the story and second, the writers are forced to underwrite other characters to give Aamir Khan the screen time he is being paid for.

Many criticized Fatima’s performance in the film. However, it’s the writing that is lacking there. Fatima’s arc is setup brilliantly from the first minute. However, in giving time to a Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan), Fatima’s arc is cut short.

The underwriting of characters due to Aamir’s presence doesn’t end with Fatima. Bachchan’s character makes great sense on paper, but its writing is extremely shallow. Think about this – as a leader, Bachchan has nothing interesting to say about spending more than a decade in hiding on an island.

Remove Aamir from the movie, write better scripts for Bachchan and Fatima, and you get a story with a genuine devotion to its plot.

The addition of Aamir Khan is a classic example of how beefing up the plot without ensuring it doesn’t harm the original storyline.

Why Does Tumbbad Work?

The theme of Tumbbad is greed.

In the first scene, we are told about a greedy god called Hastar who once tried to steal all the gold and food in the world. Then, we meet Vinayak Rao, the protagonist. Even as a child, he is greedy. He first wants to know whether he will get the spooky old fort in inheritance. Then, he asks his mother to return to the fort to find the treasure.

Later as an adult, Vinayak again returns to the village and somehow manages to find the treasure. He slowly grows richer. His greed doesn’t end with gold. Just as Hastar in the legend went after all the food in the world after stealing the gold, Vinayak chases lust once his greed for gold is fulfilled.

The story comes full circle when his young son outmatches his own greed.

At every stage, we see Vinayak succumbing to greed. There are redeeming qualities in him which made the audience root for him. However, his greed is ultimately his end.  

Making Fantasy Elements Work for the Story

The fantasy element of Tumbbad is Hastar himself. The red-skinned monster is only visible on screen for a few seconds in the entire film. However, his presence always looms large on the story.

This brings us to one of the most important qualities of Tumbbad. Instead of making the film about Hastar, Tumbbad is instead a story about how Hastar affects other characters in the story. As the sole antagonist, Hastar only gets a few seconds of screen time and yet his impact on the rest of the characters is stunning.

Now think about Thugs of Hindustan. We see the standard evil white man for extended periods of time in the film. How many times do we hear the protagonists talk about this white man? After all, this is the same white man who killed the father of our poor princess?  Instead, we get moping monologues about freedom.

Just talking about freedom is not enough. The story must tell us why freedom is important for the protagonists. Since the antagonist doesn’t effectively seem to affect the protagonist, we have a disjoint film.

Tumbbad makes sure every element in its plot is having an impact. This is why it succeeds in all areas where Thugs of Hindustan fails.  

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
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(Featured Image Credit: Wikipedia)