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When ‘Tumbbad’ met ‘The Terror’

A lush new film and a haunting TV show mirror concerns about greed, hubris and ambition

Sohum Shah as Vinayak in ‘Tumbbad’.
Sohum Shah as Vinayak in ‘Tumbbad’.

One of my pet fetishes as a movie buff is looking for little connections—whimsical ones or clear and resonant ones—between films that are very different on the surface. This might be sparked by a minor detail, such as a similarity in names, which then leads to a deeper engagement and, perhaps, an identifying of thematic and visual links. A recent instance: On first hearing about Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad, and learning that it was (in part) a horror film, my thoughts went back to the excellent limited series The Terror, about an 1840s Arctic expedition beset by a monster called... the Tuunbaq.

A phonetic connection between two unusual words, then, and a shared genre: nothing more at this point. But on watching Tumbbad, I found that it shares a visual and aural lushness with The Terror. Both works are spooky, majestic and affecting, and these qualities come from the set design, the use of music, and the evocation of a place that is like a breathing thing, corroding the thoughts and actions of the people in it. In The Terror, that place is the vast Arctic where two Royal Navy ships are stuck in the ice, with 120-odd men left to fend for themselves; as if this weren’t enough, they are stalked by a bear-like creature that may be an ancient demon from Esquimaux lore. In Tumbbad, the setting is the Maharashtrian village that gives the film its title, and which—as the story opens in 1918—is the last abode of a long-forgotten deity-demon.

Here are two period works that draw on invented mythologies—one Indian, the other Inuit—and pit our hubris against the detached implacability of nature. Tumbbad and The Terror are, in different ways, about human hunger and covetousness: the need to push ever further, the need for instant gratification, altering the cosmic balance in the process. And in both, the characters face a hideous, misshapen comeuppance.

Tumbbad opens with a Gandhi quote about the world having enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, and then tells us a story about a goddess who gave birth to all of creation, while also mothering an insatiable child called Hastar. One reading of such a story could be that our species is the child that can never have enough. And perhaps this is why there is something so unsettling about the most explicitly “horror-film-like" sections of Tumbbad, which are set, literally and metaphorically, inside a womb. A very specific story plays out here: the protagonist Vinayak (Sohum Shah) travels into the belly of the beast, knowing he might come away with priceless riches, or be destroyed in the attempt. Or that both things might happen at the same time—he might realize his dreams while relinquishing his soul. But at a broader level, what we see isn’t just the story of one man or one family: it is the stuff of life itself, with Vinayak a representation of a species always trying to find that eternal balance between self-interest and restraint.

The Gandhi quote is applicable in another sense to The Terror, which, apart from being a horror story about explorers, is also a commentary on British colonialization, its devastation and exploitation of the more pristine parts of our planet. I was reminded of the show again last week when I read about the recent report by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, presenting the possibility that our planet might reach a point of no return as early as 2040.

Each film also has an eerie, otherworldly music score, one that doesn’t feel manmade but seems to flow from the deepest recesses of nature (more than once I thought of the Ray Bradbury story The Fog Horn, where a lonely monster living in the ocean’s depths falls in love with a lighthouse siren). In The Terror, the music heightens the sense of agoraphobia created by the boundless Arctic; in Tumbbad, it creates the opposite sensation, claustrophobia, evocative of distant heartbeats in caverns deep beneath the earth.

Through the plaintive soundtrack, both places seem to cry out: don’t ravage us, take only what you need. But can humans ever heed such entreaties? We are a contradictory lot, and our worst qualities are inseparable from our better ones. We plunder and destroy in the name of advancement, but in so doing we also create things—like art, or cinema—that give us a channel for reflection and self-criticism. And then we go back to being our narcissistic selves.

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