In the age of Netflix and other online streaming apps, amidst entertainment that can be slipped into your back pocket, in the age of stream, download, and watch – what really is the role of a horror film?
We have seen the spooky, the creepy, the horrific, and the Satanic. We have had horror movies involving men, ghosts, monsters and creatures. In water, in the air, and from beyond the earth. Jump-scares and screeching doors and ghosts slamming their ghostly faces into the camera to startle us. All of that is done.
Which is why one wants more from a horror film. We look for more than a ghost chasing a human. We need the film to have more soul – atma – if you please!
Tumbad achieves what horror films in the 21st century are supposed to. To leave you with a feeling you can take back home – beyond the scares and twists and blood. A slight unsettling feeling, a tinge of memory that hits a dark space deep inside you.
We Indians might make the most number of movies on the planet, but we are terrible at one particular genre – horror.
Indian cinema has gone through a number of horror tropes – the lady who was wronged and is looking to avenge her death. The pus and blood in lonely buildings era with Ramsay brothers. Followed by the Trishul and Yagna era where a Baba dressed in black directs the ghost to do things – acting as a veritable HR professional for spirits.
This is not to say that I don’t watch them. I have a fetish for bad films, and will usually sit through a bad horror film on television. People like me are partly responsible for these films being made. And once I realise this truth, I feel guilty if I don’t watch them.
It’s only natural therefore, that I have my favourites in the genre. There was Hawaa, with Tabu starring opposite a bad script. Where the ghost is a BA student from Gurgaon who molests Tabu in her sleep. The CGI in the film is
pathbreaking nightie-entering, a sight that could trigger guilt cold-hearted ghosts.
There is horror, there is titillation, and then there’s this video.
Then there’s 1920 – one of those films that were ripped off from a number of English films featuring churches, priests and Christian ghosts. Of course, the legendary brains of Vikram Bhatt decided to adapt the film to Indian context.
So instead of Biblical phrases, the actors start chanting the Hanuman Chalisa. But wait. One can’t just show a few lines of Hanuman Chalisa because VHP. It is a crime to recite a prayer halfway through – and so the actor chants the entire Hanuman Chalisa – from start to finish. For 3 and a half minutes!
And guess what! Tulsidas was right. Bhoot pishaach nikat nahi aave. Mahaveer jab naam sunaave.
Indian ghosts have back-stories, character arcs, motives, evidence, and exhibits in court. I won’t be surprised if they turn up in suits and fight legal cases too.
Which is probably why Tumbad doesn’t wish to remain in that space of Indian horror. It takes comfort in the oldest of formats – one that is strictly Indian. Those involving grandmothers, ghosts, palaces, greed and treasures.
The kind of stories that had no motion capture, or CGI, or Dolby Digital Surround Sound. The kind of stories that were narrated by grandparents, or cousins on terraces.
Tumbad is as much about the story, as its atmospherics. The cinematography of the film makes you forget that it is in an independent film. If you ever felt frustrated at the huge budgets commercial Indian films have at their disposal, and yet the mediocre tripe they churn out – watch Tumbad for its efficacy and its indulgences. The cinematography meets the background score and makes deep, passionate love on the screen.
Tumbad succeeds because it isn’t trying to scare you. It’s like a magician asking you to pick a card, and then after a while showing you a completely different card. It isn’t trying to shock you, or trick you, or show you how smart it is.
As I write this, Tumbad is limping out of the last few theaters in cities around the country. If you manage to find a show on BookMyShow, do bookyoushow.