LFF 2018: Tumbbad / The Nightshifter

TUMBBAD

Indian horror films are something of a rarity, but Kothanodi was one of my highlights of 2015’s London Film Festival, and that was a horror film – sort of. This one, my first film of this year’s festival, definitely is – or wants to be. It begins with an account of our hero’s poverty-stricken childhood during the years of the Raj, wherein his mother was forced to split her time between wanking off an old rich man (the hero’s father) and caring for a much older – impossibly and grotesquely so – woman (the hero’s grandmother) – this last duty rendered even trickier because ideally performed without waking her.

The reason for this proscription is revealed when the young hero, Vinayak, is left alone with her and she does wake, demanding food which might well, as she makes quite clear, consist of him. Luckily Mum returns (though without his brother, who has died after falling off a wall) and sends her back to sleep again. Shortly thereafter, the old man dies and they move away, leaving the old woman to perish.

Or not – when Vinayak (Sohum Shah) returns to Tumbbad as an adult she is still hanging on in there, even though a tree has now grown through her. Finding this continued existence to be rather trying she begs Vinayak to end it, which he does, though only after she has guided him towards the old man’s treasure.

Thus enriched he returns to his village to become known as a slightly dodgy man of means, with nobody quite being able to work out where he gets his gold coins from. Eventually we do: it seems that every now and again he has to go back to his home town and venture underground into the womb of a goddess and steal it from her son Hastar, a skinless demonic creature, while he is temporarily distracted by a doll made of uncooked dough. Should Hastar get his claws on him he will be condemned to the kind of painfully-extended existence that afflicted the old woman, but so far he has managed to avoid this.

While this beats working, such visits – generally rather fraught and yielding only a limited number of coins – take it out of him, so he trains his son to take over the ‘family business’. He is keen; in fact a little over-keen, which has disastrous consequences.

The timespan takes us into the years of independence, and some of the changes get a nod here – a looter himself, Vinayak rather regrets the departure of the British, under whose rule he was able to get away with things which might now come under scrutiny. And at least the British still allowed them to burn widows… the subjugation of women, including Vinayak’s long-suffering spouse, also gets a look-in.

But Rani Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad’s film doesn’t give these elements their due, and although we can see how Vinayak’s adventures in the womb of the goddess might work as a metaphor for exploitation, of both resources and women, we don’t feel it. Urged on by its rather overbearing score, the film always seems too eager to charge on to the next set-piece, even though there aren’t that many.

This isn’t a generic horror film, which is no bad thing – it’s just trying a bit too hard to be one, instead of a folk tale with elements of horror and social commentary.

The sequences in the womb of the goddess are well done: a lot of money has been spent on this, and apparently it was worth it, since this has been a box office success in India. Still I couldn’t help feeling that the makers of the film should have harkened a bit more closely to its own moral about greed and gold. Not that they care, I suppose: at least, not yet.

THE NIGHTSHIFTER

Dennison Ramalho’s The Nightshifter, from Brazil, also has a hero, or anti-hero, who temporarily gains an advantage by supernatural means. Stênio (Daniel De Oliveira) is a morgue assistant who talks to his bodies; and, moreover, they talk back, providing, on occasion, some valuable information. This was conceived as a TV series – no doubt to be called The Corpse Whisperer or The Talking Dead – but nobody wanted to take a gamble on that so here we are. If it can generate enough enthusiasm – and cash – a TV series may follow.

In this introductory episode, if we may see it like that, Stênio’s domineering wife is having an affair with the man who runs the local bakery, leaving him seething with jealous rage. Using information gained in his little chats with the dead he sets up a gangland hit on his wife’s lover, a local businessman. As it happens, this also puts paid to the wife.

Not noted for her sunny disposition when alive, she gets decidedly cranky in death, savaging her killer’s internal organs from within and tormenting Stênio unmercifully by – to take one example – replacing his birthday gift to his son with a spine ripped from a corpse (which certainly puts a dampener on the party). She also manifests as a head in a jar, and fills rooms with razor wire.

The dead, it seems, can do more than just talk, and if it seems that the film has abandoned its premise, then at least it remains lively (Ramalho wrote the last Coffin Joe film, Embodiment of Evil which, as I remember, was dreadful but not dull).

There were times when I wondered if these supernatural events weren’t just manifestations of hysteria – Stênio’s, I mean – but the film put paid to my idle speculations when the wife possesses her dead lover’s daughter, who has gotten close to our hero. The wife sends her on a domestic rampage, and she is not above killing the kids (although you could just see this as custody of course). However, the hero is able to dispossess her before dumping the kids on her and going out to wander the earth, trailed by the dead, in search of his next adventure.

I’m not inclined to join him, but I wasn’t bored, and wish him and all concerned with this enterprise well, especially as Brazil – as Ramalho made very plain in the speech he gave – is now facing it’s own nightmare in the form of ‘the Brazilian Trump’. Yes it seems that every country has to have one now – that’s what global capitalism means. That, and a bewildering proliferation of ‘content’ from all over the place, so much that one can hardly bear to contemplate it all.

But what can you do? Bring on the next film.

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