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“Hastar’s Curse is a Boon for Us”: Greed, Materiality and Horror in ‘Tumbbad’

By Aryama Bej

A ruined mansion isolated from human habitation, a curse from the past, an unfulfilled desire, a ghost, a witch, or a supernatural entity- are all common features in Bollywood horror films ranging from 80s Ramsay Brothers’ masala horror to early 2000s’ Darna Mana Hai (2003), Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), Raaz (2009) to the recent Bulbul (2021), Stree (2018), or  Dybbuk (2021). Rahi Anil Barve’s 2018 film Tumbbad, in this cliché generic tradition, stands unique and succeeds in carving out a new aesthetic of horror in Bollywood movies. Not only it does away with the ‘jolt and shock tactics of Western horror movies’ (Sakshi Dogra) by introducing elements of atmospheric horror, but also weaves the story around a myth conceptualized by the writer himself. The plot was initially inspired by Shripad Narayan Pendse’s Marathi Novel Tumbadche Khot (2018) which narrated the story of a corrupted money lender much like Tumbbad’s protagonist Vinayak Rao (played by Sohum Shah), a little girl, and her grandmother ‘possessed by a demon’. Barve remembers an incident involved with his friend, which also serves as an inspiration for the screenplay of this film.  Nonetheless, it must be remembered that what makes a horror story discomforting is not what is told but how it is told. In Tumbbad, the narration, soundscape, elimination of synthetic elements could successfully invoke awe and fear, while the well-conceived mythology arouse the emotion of sustained dread. Sakshi Dogra, who critically studied Tumbbad for the first time, focused on the atmosphere of the film, especially the torrential rainfall as its dominant soundscape and the mysterious labyrinth of the ruined architecture as the major elements triggering fear. I would argue that these features contribute significantly to creating an elongated agitation throughout the film whose climax is attained elsewhere. In this paper, I will explore how the narration of the myth, the constant reminder of the primitive corruption of human morals and its consciousness, and finally the parallel between mythological horror and contemporary horror become the major tropes of producing an atmospheric horror that keeps haunting the audience in Tumbbad.

According to the myth, the Goddess of Prosperity gave birth to 160 million deities among whom the first-born and the most beloved Hastar, succumbed to his greed coveting all the gold and food from his mother. Though Hastar could loot all the gold, he was destroyed and fragmented after the attack by other Gods before taking away the food. His mother saved him at last with a promise that no one would ever worship him, and his name would gradually be forgotten for good. Hastar went back to his mother’s womb for an indefinite sleep until the ancestral family of Rao inaugurated his worship to fulfil a dangerous desire of acquiring the same gold that Hastar craved; thereby entering into a vicious cycle of materialistic greed. The storytelling immediately convinces the audience about the absence of Hastar’s name in any Hindu scripture to make the mythology believable. However, this film is not the first one to create the character of Hastar. Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “Haita the Shepherd” (1893) first mentions a supernatural character Hastur which later inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness (1930). Hastur, the unspeakable, flying monster with tentacles in Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ becomes Hastar in Barve’s indigenous ‘folk horror’ (Piers Haggard) with an obese body, red-round eyes and pale face with human-coloured skin, who looks eerie but not demonic at the first sight. While it is rumoured that Piers Haggard used the term ‘folk horror’ for the first time in an interview for his film Blood on Satan’s claw in 2003, the reference to the term dates back to 1936 in an article by Sarah K.Marr in The English Journal.

The popularity of folk horror began with the Mark Gatiss’s 2010 documentary History of Horror where he suggested that horror films “shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions”. Later, film historian Adam Scovell in his book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017) proposed the theory of Folk Horror Chain listing the principal chain of elements in folk horror as “landscape, isolation, skewed moral beliefs and Summoning or Happening” (Paciorek, 2018). Tumbbad, in similar folk horror tradition, unfolds in the rural landscape of a Maharashtrian village, uninhabited and isolated from the rest of the countryside. One arrives at the village only out of greed for the treasures- first Sarkar and his family, his son Vinayak Rao, a friend Raghav, and finally Vinayak’s son. The lust for achieving the gold from the body of Hastar (or later Hastar[s]) happens inside the womb of the Goddess which becomes the site of horror. A child returning to the womb of his mother disrupts the natural cycle of progression, creates violence, and invites the possibility of an ill omen. A mother’s womb, the ultimate territory of comfort and protection for a child becomes a terrifying, claustrophobic and salivating crimson battleground between the child (Hastar) and his victims. This is not a battle between the hero and the devil, as is the usual trope in Bollywood horror films, but between the corrupted morals and rationality of a human mind. One survives only if one knows how to limit their greed as Vinayak did initially. One who gets bitten by Hastar receives a curse of immortality, eternal hunger and unlimited access to gold just as Hastar did.

Hastar, therefore, is the metaphoric symbol of greed, a poison which stings the human body if they let him in. Hastar survives in his ugliest form but his victims get deformed into half-human and half-demon where the sensibilities like pain and hunger remain human but desire and mind become the personification of greed. The sight of the earliest victim, the great-grandmother of Vinayak Rao, is the first introduction of body horror to the audience. The grotesque physique of the grandmother, skeleton-like body from age, legs chained, sticks inserted to lock the tooth, wrinkled bloody skin, long nails and her eternal hunger remind one of Stephen King’s short story ‘Gramma’. George’s encounter with the dead body of his Gramma is similar to Vinayak’s encounter with his grandmother on the fateful night of his brother Sadashiv’s death by accident. When his Gramma became violent from hunger, the only way George could escape was by invoking the name of Hastur and by asking Gramma to ‘lie down’ in Hastur’s name. It is impossible to miss the same helpless chanting of Vinayak Rao and later his son: ‘Soja Warna Hastar Aa Jayega’ (Sleep! Or else Hastar will come). However, Gramma was a witch while grandmother was a mortal who passed the deadly sin of ‘greed’ down her family legacy. However, the poison of greed did not remain within the family. Raghav, a dishonest opium merchant who bribed the British official to get away with his illegal trades, was also a friend of Rao. His mercenary nature made him suspicious of Rao’s immediate wealth and he too went on a fatal mission to Tumbbad after tricking Vinayak into sleeping with a newfound mistress. Naïve Raghav unknowingly entered the Goddess’s womb and got bitten by Hastar thus turning into a grotesque monster conjoined to the walls of the womb. Raghav was fortunately granted death by Rao.

The story transits from 1918 to 1947, a moment of significant political and sociological change in India. The mythology unfolds itself alongside the journey of India attaining its independence. The ‘fear’ in the myth runs parallel to the horror of the oppressive and patriarchal feudal framework in pre-colonial India. The lavish corrupt economy allowed Vinayak’s father, the ‘Sarkar’ to force his wife to masturbate him in return for a gold coin, ‘an earning’. Vinayak and his little son similarly engaged in illicit behaviours with women. It is interesting how the journey to the womb of the Goddess and the horrifying strategy of stealing the gold coins from Hastar’s loincloth was the greatest ‘ambition’, almost like an employment for Vinayak, who strictly ‘trained’ his son to ‘achieve’ what he did. ‘Greed’ turned into ‘ambition’ and ‘fatality’ into demand for ‘courage’.

Not only that, the film offers a subtle critique of the class system. The exploitation of common men by Konkanasth Brahmins like Sarkar’s family in pre-colonial India, their corrupted ties with the colonial government and the oppressive mentality towards women in the household all together built up the alarming picture of India before independence.  It is intriguing how the element of fear has been intricately woven with contemporary political corruption and moralistic compromise. To summon Hastar, a human has to offer him food and this food is made from the flour manufactured by Brahmins; ‘pure flour made by Brahmins’ as the film highlights. The flour can be used in two ways. If spread in the raw form of dust, it is capable of turning Hastar into ashes but if mixed with water and made into like dolls, it becomes the food for hungry Hastar. Creepy dolls like Annabelle, Talky Tina or Chucky are not new in the horror movie franchise. But while they have overt eyes, eyelashes, red lips and bloody cheeks, what is strange about the dough dolls is their similarity with a human figure and even with Hastar.  It turns even more dreadful when it is revealed that each dough doll summons one Hastar. The figure of Hastar(s), the red creatures with gold crowns on their head crawls and fights for a bigger share of their food in the mother’s womb. It reminds the audience of the opening quote by Mahatma Gandhi in the film ‘The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed’. The womb which is supposed to be a place of security for a child is shown in its grotesque form. The camera focuses on the dripping of enzymes and bodily fluids and spasmodic breathing of the blood vessels within the womb when any potential victim enters its territory. The victim experiences ‘abjection’(Kristeva,1982). He is at the same time disgusted with the mesh of bodily fluids covering his body and is afraid of the future possibility of ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva, 1982) where death is embodied by the figure of Hastar(s) themselves.

The evil in the film is not merely Hastar but several manifestations of him through the figure of ‘Sarkar(s)’ down the generation. Therefore, the idea of ‘freedom’ from these demons become a major theme. Women seek freedom from their husbands, the common men seek freedom from the feudal regime and British government in pre-colonial India and Hastar’s victims seek freedom from their life.  The fate of women’s freedom has not been developed much. The second freedom is realised when ‘Sarkar’s’ regime shifted to ‘Bharat Sarkar’(Indian Government) in 1947 shifting the ownership of Tumbbad’s ruined mansion to the Indian Government. The ruined architecture is often the perfect spot for unravelling the mysteries in a horror film. The final downfall of the building or shift in its owner makes the audience apprehend the end of the cause of horror. The third freedom mentioned earlier is terrifying physically and moralistically. The victims bitten by Hastar could not die and were eternally hungry if not sleeping. The smell of human flesh, even of their own family, turned them cannibalistic and could only be tamed by invoking the name of Hastar. But they understood that this is a curse, not a blessing and the only way to get rid of it is to burn themselves to death. Vinayak’s last encounter with his grandmother as a child was dreadful- the day when she wanted to eat him alive. It sent a shudder down the spine of the audience when Vinayak revisited Tumbbad after several years and both burst out in an evil laughter after finding his grandmother alive. This marked the moment when Vinayak turned into a demon himself as the desire for keeping the cursed alive for fulling his ‘greed’ exceeded his trauma as a child. An eerie image of an enormous tree which has grown on the grandmother looked like a mesh of umbilical cord attached to the child in a mother’s womb. The grandmother warned Vinayak about the fatal consequence of claiming ‘everything’ that is ancestral but in vain. Finally, death which is usually associated with the gory part of horror films turns out to be the only ‘relief’ in Tumbbad. Vinayak burns his grandmother, later his curiously greedy friend Raghav and is burnt by his son at last thereby attaining the final ‘freedom’.

Guntis Šmidchens describes the predominant element of ‘folklorism’ in folk horror as a folklore ‘self-consciously accepting it as a carrier of the past and the premodern world, and bringing an impression of unchanging, stable tradition into the present. Folk horror does not just ‘accept’ folklore as a ‘carrier of the past’, however, but actively creates it as such.’(Keetley,2020) Thus, usually any folk horror begins with the topophobia, often in rural areas, suggesting that such places have dark mysteries, are superstitions and are pre-modern to such an extent that they can exert ‘extreme violence in order to conserve the rural idyll.’ It is true that Tumbbad village qualifies all of the above features but horror is injected in the form of the dangerous choice of humankind more than the topography. Horror is emoted in two forms- fear and disgust. While the emotion of fear is constant in the majority of the film, its climax happens within the womb. The body horror shown through the monstrous figure of Hastar and his victims injects a feeling of disgust in the audience. But both the cause of horror happens only because of the greed of upper-caste Brahmins. The existence of the womb of Goddess is not within but under the mansion and hence outside the realm of human habitation.  Had men not worshipped Hastar out of their own greed, the rural landscape of Tumbbad would not have been scary and the cursed rainfall too would not have been incessant. Thus, the film tries to explain how the landscape of the human mind and its uncontrolled territory of deadly sins prove to be far more horrifying and dangerous than the world outside.

References

Keetley, Dawn. “Introduction: Defining Folk Horror.” Revenant, No. 5, 2020,

https://www.revenantjournal.com/contents/introduction-defining-folk-horror-2/.Accessed 29 Apr 2022.

“From the Forests, Fields, Furrows and Further: An Introduction by Andy Paciorek.” Folk Horror Revival & Urban Wyrd Project, 16 Sept. 2021, https://folkhorrorrevival.com/about/from-the-forests-fields-and-furrows-an-introduction-by-andy-paciorek/. Accessed 29 Apr 2022.

“Gramma (Short Story).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 May 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gramma_(short_story).

“Hastur.” The H.P. Lovecraft Wiki, https://lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Hastur#Hastur_in_the_mythos. Accessed 28 Apr 2022.

“Hastur.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Sept. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastur. Accessed 30 Apr 2022.

Paciorek, Andy. Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies, Essays & Interviews. Wyrd Harvest Press, 2018.

Sakshi, Dogra, et al. “Conjuring an Atmosphere: A Study of Tumbbad as Folk Horror.” Horror Fiction in the Global South: Cultures, Narratives and Representations, Bloomsbury India, New Delhi, 2021, pp. 155–166.

Thurgill, James. “A Fear of the Folk: On Topophobia and the Horror of Rural Landscapes.” Revenant, No. 5, March 2020, https://www.revenantjournal.com/contents/a-fear-of-the-folk-on-topophobia-and-the-horror-of-rural-landscapes/. Accessed 30 Apr 2022.

“Tumbbad.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Sept. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tumbbad.

Bio:
Aryama Bej
is currently a Research Assistant at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Kolkata. She did her postgraduation from the Department of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Performance Studies, Gender and sexuality, Nineteenth Century Bengal, Modernism, and Visual Aesthetics. She is a dance and theatre practitioner and has internationally presented her paper at the Annual Oxford Dance Symposium, Johns Hopkins University, American Comparative Literature Association, and Cambridge University, among others.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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