Tumbbad

Horror films are not usually my first, or even second choice, but I’m so glad I listened to a friend’s recommendation and watched Tumbbad. The film is exquisitely made and the story is much better than I expected – more Pan’s Labyrinth than The Shining although quite definitely Indian in feel. Here there are myths, metaphors and monsters that are frightening on a number of levels while the underlying story explores the theme of greed and how it warps and twists those it touches. The story is told in three separate chapters that span the years from 1918 to 1947 and adds glimpses of the social issues of the time, ranging from the harsh treatment of widows to Indian Independence and the opium trade. Against this backdrop, Vinayak Rao grows from a young child to become a father himself as he seeks out the treasure that lies within Tumbbad.

The film opens with an animation and voice-over where a father tells his son the legend of the god Hastar and his imprisonment in the womb of the goddess of prosperity. It’s an effective way to quickly explain the background story and introduce the idea of treasure and the consequences of unrestricted greed before moving to 1918 and a rain-soaked village somewhere near Pune. Tumbbad is where young Vinayak (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar) and Sadashiv (Rudra Soni) live with their mother (Jyoti Malshe) in a strange stone house on the top of a hill. The boy’s mother is housekeeper and mistress to the ageing Sarkar (Madhav Hari Joshi) who lives in a crumbling palace and who is apparently also the boys’ father. Vinayak’s mother also takes care of the Sarkar’s great grandmother (Piyush Kaushik), who is chained and locked in a room at the end of a long, narrow corridor in their small house. She sleeps as long as she is fed regularly and the family live in dread of her waking with her snores added to the ever-present sound of the rain.

After Sarkar dies, Vinayak wants to look for the treasure, supposedly located somewhere in the palace, but after a tragic accident his mother is intent on leaving Tumbbad. She forces Vinayak to promise not to return, but fifteen years later Vinayak (Sohum Shah) breaks his vow and returns to the palace to claim his birthright. But as his great, great grandmother tells him, not everything you inherit should be claimed. The final chapter in the story relates what happens when Vinayak brings his own son Pandurang (Mohammad Samad) to Tumbbad and initiates him into the mystery of Hastar and the family treasure.

The film was written by Rahil Anil Barve, along with Anand Gandhi, Mitest Shah and Adesh Prasad, and went through a number of producers and re-writes before finally releasing at film festivals last year. Perhaps as a consequence of the long development, Tumbbad is full of sumptuous detail that mostly serves to enhance the story. To start with, the village of Tumbbad seems practically non-existent since the only places seen through the veil of rain are the crumbling palace and the family’s stone house set amongst a bleak and desolate landscape. Adding to the misery of the landscape, inside the house there are dark passageways lit only by lamplight, while the palace is a bewildering warren of rooms and buildings which are gradually overtaken by trees and greenery as time passes. The whole place reeks of decay and corruption and is the perfect setting for a horror film. Pankaj Kumar is in charge of cinematography and his previous experience with films such as Haider and Ship of Theseus seems to have influenced his almost surreal treatment of the landscape here.

The path to the treasure is via a well and as Vinayak descends the passageway becomes red with oozing walls that seem to pulsate, making it seem as if he has indeed crawled into the womb of the goddess in his search for Hastar. The monsters are well thought out too and with clever use of CGI and dim lighting the effects are frightening without being overly gruesome or theatrical. The film relies on suggestion and atmosphere rather than all-out horror or gore, but there are several excellent jump-scares and plenty of creepy moments that are quite scary enough for me.

Throughout the film there are several reoccurring themes that lock the cycle of greed in place. The rain is constant, while a woman wearing red and the image of a boy covered in flour reoccur in different chapters of the story. Best of all are the wonderfully intricate and complex locks that secure the various entrances – to the stone house, the palace, and even to the entrance to the treasure.

Sohum Shah is fantastic here as a man so obsessed by gold that he values it above all other relationships. His face is cold and emotionless until it comes to the matter of money, and then his infatuation with treasure is plain to see. He even trains Pandurang in the skills needed to reach the treasure, but has no real emotional connection with his son at all. The two child actors in the beginning are superb and are instrumental is setting up the initial claustrophobic fear that permeates their home.

It’s the evolution of the main characters here and how they become monstrous in their greed that works best, which Mohammad Samad manages well as Pandurang. His change from initial innocence to scheming for more gold is beautifully handled and perfectly summed up in his attitude to his mother and to Vinayak’s mistress (Ronjini Chakraborty). It’s an impressive performance from the young actor and he handles the various emotions of the role incredibly well. Anita Date is also good in a small but important role as Vinayak’s wife, while Deepak Damle and the rest of the support cast are all effective and add layers to the complexity of the film.

The most impressive thing about Tumbbad is the story, which grabs attention right from the start and just doesn’t let go. The stunning sets and clever use of light and shade are amazingly effective, while the whole world of the film is resonant with detail and rich in imagination. Despite the story being all about the evil of greed, it doesn’t ever feel moralistic, but rather simply describes the consequence of succumbing to the desire for more and more gold. It’s also an interesting take to have the protagonist approach and take advantage of the monster rather than the other way around. All up, Tumbbad is an excellent directorial début from Rahi Anil Barve and creative director Anand Gandhi. It’s simply an awesome film that deserves a wide audience outside of fans of the horror genre, and is well worth catching online if (like me) you missed it at the cinema. 4½ stars.

The Gentleman (1994)

Bhatt’s remake of the Tamil film Gentleman had the opportunity to be excellent. Unfortunately despite having all the necessary ingredients – a solid central idea, an AR Rahman soundtrack ready for Anu Malik to put his name to, and of course Chiru! – it never quite hits the mark.

A note on the print quality. And by “note” I mean rant. It doesn’t seem to matter which VCD or DVD I tried, the quality is so awful so you may as well watch a dodgy YouTube copy. I never found subtitles for this so that wasn’t a factor. Nobody who owns the movie seems to care if it’s watchable. I ended up taking screencaps from Youtube because my disc had a strange pixellation along the edges of the picture.

Chiranjeevi is Vijay, a small business owner and gentleman thief. He steals from the rich to build a school for the poor, all explained in a tragic backstory flashback. Chiru is excellent and quite restrained, unless he is in a comedy disguise when all bets are off. How much do I love the bit where he rips off a grey moustache only to reveal his own moustache underneath? Gold.

I really liked his characterisation and his dramatic range got a workout as Vijay experiences both the highs and the lowest of lows. The action scenes are on a grand scale and Chiru gets to throw himself around. He even has to do a bit of home surgery on himself. The dubbing artist for Chiru (I think it was Shakti Singh) is pretty good but I always seem to struggle with hearing another voice come out of a familiar face. Since there were no subtitles, and I understand more Hindi than Telugu (still not much) it should have been easier but it just sounds Wrong. Chiranjeevi did his own dubbing for fights and crying scenes so it was both familiar and a bit jarring to hear. And there was a very good opportunity for a rousing “Bastards!” that never happened, and you know how much I look forward to that. Especially when Paresh Rawal is playing one of the bastards in question. The cat and mouse with the police never quite hits high suspense. Vijay’s elaborate schemes and disguises always fail but for some reason the police always fail to capitalise on his mistakes. Even when they know about the Significant Ring.

The styling for the songs is largely standard filmi 90s hideousness but I did like seeing Chiru work his way through all the dressy-uppy options. From European prince to ye olden warrior to biker aerobics gear to a cross between a pharaonic headdress and a doo-rag, he made it his own.

Of course all the ladies love Vijay and while none of the female characters contribute much, the threat of romance does make it easier to fit the songs into the movie. And allows for an extra number featuring Roja. Most of the songs were lifted from the original soundtrack so while they look terribly dated they still sound quite good. The one song Anu Malik actually contributed (by nicking it from Haddaway), “What is Love?” is terrible and yet it is hard to stop watching no matter what your ears are telling you.

The female characters get the rough end of the pineapple. From honka-honka comedy horns when Roshni (Juhi Chawla) and Babli (Heera Rajagopal) hugged (because boobs), to writing that aspires to be tissue thin, and a costume department out for some kind of vengeance on Heera, it is a mess. Juhi spends approximately 83% of the film grimacing in the background as Roshni makes eyes at Vijay and hates anyone who appears to get in her way. There is no chemistry between her and Chiranjeevi, so the few scenes of Roshni’s jealous rage seemed silly rather than anything else.

I am pretty sure Juhi only signed on to be in Roop Suhana Lagta Hain because that is her moment to shine.

Heera Rajagopal plays a character who is dangerously stupid, a bit of a kleptomaniac, and extremely shrill. Only Babli could find herself in an attempted rape scenario by being lured into a ball pit. Yes. I know. And she was wearing heels when she went in. It is really hard not to victim blame when a character has absolutely no ability to learn from experience and apply those learnings to future situations. She still didn’t deserve the whole “be a decent girl like Roshni who is always covered up and in the kitchen” speech. But she moved on straight into a song fantasy so I assume no lasting harm was done to her self-esteem.

Paresh Rawal and Deepak Tijori play the two police most likely to catch the elusive Vijay. There are no surprises in either performance, but they largely avoided going over the top on the comedy. I like Paresh Rawal more as a villain than as an angry but honest cop, I have to say. It felt like a waste of his abilities but I appreciated the intensity he brought to the confrontation.

The tone wanders from slapstick to deep tragedy and grief, and while the actors seem to have a handle on what they are doing I can’t say the same for the direction. Rather than give Vijay’s backstory as things unfolded, the film ground to a halt while we found out what had happened to his mother and brother and why he became a thief. Then back to a long and talky court scene as Vijay attempted to show that society and greedy rich people were to blame for his crimes before a jump to 6 years later.

Of course this is one for the Chiranjeevi fans, but it is not a bad film. Just an uneven one. 3 ½ stars! (Points off for badly written female characters, points on for the songs, points off again for trying to pass the songs off as Anu Malik’s)

Stree (2018)

Stree

Amar Kaushik’s Stree starts with the intriguing message that the story is based on a ‘ridiculous true phenomenon’, apparently referencing a folk-tale from Karnataka, but which really could be any one of a number of similar stories world-wide. The film is billed as a horror comedy, and manages to be both funny and scary, which is an excellent achievement in a genre that generally manages one or the other, but rarely both. The story takes place in the wonderfully atmospheric town of Chanderi, making Stree worth watching just for the architecture alone, but in addition, Rajkummar Rao is excellent, Pankaj Tripathi and the rest of the support cast are brilliant, and the blend of social commentary, dark humour and ghostly appearances makes for an unusual but entertaining film.

The basic premise of the story is the annual haunting of Chanderi by a female ghost that preys on the men of the town. For the first four nights of Navratri, Stree calls to any men she sees alone at night stealing them away and leaving behind nothing but their clothes. The best part about this is that she calls their name three times, and if they turn around, she takes that as consent. Naturally then, all the men have to do to be safe is not turn around – but somehow they seem unable to manage this. I love the idea of a female ghost that looks for consent, particularly in Hindi cinema where the men don’t usually give women the same consideration, which is of course the whole point.  But also, and more subtly, there is the message that the men are so desperate for love that they can be easily seduced by the ghost despite knowing the consequences.

Protection from Stree can also be gained by writing a message outside the house asking Stree to come back the following night. Surprisingly the literate Stree obeys, keeping the menfolk safe from her clutches as she continues to follow the directive and return the next night until her time is up. The presence of Stree means that the tables are turned and in this story it’s the men who are terrified and unable to go out alone at night. Some even resort to dressing as women to be able to venture outdoors at night safely, while the rest huddle behind their womenfolk in fear. The film has a lot of these ‘role reversals’ that shine the spotlight on the treatment of women in India. There is even an item song with Nora Fatehi gyrating away in front of a crowd of young men, but at the end she is politely escorted away by bodyguards, totally in control of the situation, while one of the men ends up as Stree’s first victim.

Against the backdrop of the ghost, the film follows Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), a ladies tailor who can gauge his clienteles’ measurements with just a glance, and his romance with an mysterious woman. Despite his obvious talent, Vicky feels that he is destined for bigger and better things, but while he’s waiting for them to happen, he spends his time in Chanderi stitching clothes and hanging out with his friends Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana) and Jana (Abhishek Banerjee). At the start of Navratri, Vicky meets an enigmatic female visitor (Shraddha Kapoor) who has come to the town for the festival, and who commissions Vicky to make an outfit for her. Although his friends are sceptical and even suspect the newcomer may be Stree, Vicky is instantly smitten and ends up on a couple of dubious ‘dates’ with the mysterious stranger. At the same time, Stree has started her annual haunting, although Vicky denies her existence until Jana is one of the men taken by the vengeful spectre. Suddenly Vicky has a reason to find out more about the ghost, and he enlists the aid of local bookstore owner Rudra (Pankaj Tripathi) and even his mysterious girlfriend to track down Stree and rescue the men she has taken.

Part of what makes the film work so well is the humorous dialogue between the three friends and the mix of jokes, physical comedy and deliberate misdirection. When interspersed with some hair-raising moments as Stree creeps up behind yet another victim, the relief gained makes everything seem even funnier and also serves to exaggerate the horror element even more. The first half in particular is well written to blend story development with comedy and horror, and although the repeated attempts to lay the ghost start to drag a little in the second half, there is still enough that is unexpected to give a few shocks right up to the very end. Rajkummar Rao is in his element and he is brilliantly funny as a small-town tailor who is mostly oblivious to the world around him. His reaction to discovering a pretty girl seems interested in him is entertaining and his slave-like devotion to her every wish is cleverly milked for every last drop of humour. Aparshakti Khurana is also excellent as Vicky’s cynical and more sceptical friend, while Abhishek Banerjee is hilarious as the more gullible and susceptible of the trio. I love the contrast between their friendly banter and the more serious discussions going on around them as Stree makes her reappearance into the town while they seem totally oblivious of the danger.

When it comes to the more spooky elements of the story, Shraddha Kapoor does a good job of shrouding her character in mystery without overdoing the ‘silent stranger’ vibe. Although she doesn’t have too much to do other than appear mysterious, her character does keep you guessing, particularly since writers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. throw in some lovely red herrings (or are they?) along the way. I really enjoyed their previous film Shor in the City, which had a blend of action, violence and comedy, but Stree is a gentler watch that adds more social commentary into the mix. Part of the novelty of the film comes from the tweaking of stereotypical gender roles and the subtle but definite insistence on women’s rights (including the right of a prostitute to insist on the use of a condom) throughout the screenplay.  Although much of the film is very dark, Amalendu Chaudhary makes excellent use of the old buildings as a backdrop, while maintaining a suspenseful atmosphere even during the daylight scenes. Director Amar Kaushil does a good job of keeping everything together with only the odd misstep towards the end of the film.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a good entertainer and the digs at patriarchal society add an extra dimension to the story. Worth watching for clever dialogue, plenty of laughs, a few good scares and excellent performances from the cast. 4 stars.

Stree