Tumbbad (2018) and a Discussion about Defining Horror

Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad is one beautiful movie; the natural lighting and the wide vista’s (even the closed spaces seem endless) are stunning. The story is about greed and the heritage hidden in your blood. In an Indian setting, which – seeing this for the first time – I really enjoyed.

Tumbbad is set over three chapters/time periods. It starts in 1918. We see Vinyak – our protagonist – as a young boy, living with his mother and brother in Tumbbad. His mother is the mistress of his older father and she also takes care of his father’s mother. Vinyak’s grandmother. A scary grandmother. Fifteen years later, the second time period, Vinyak sets out to become a man. The third period is in 1947 and focuses on what Vinyak’s legacy will be; the fate of his son.

After seeing the movie, I concluded it wasn’t a horror movie. However, my company disagreed strongly.

My argument:

I follow Noel Carrolls definition of horror which is entity based. To be a horror movie the movie world has to have a monster. A monster is a creature defying the scientific categories of the movie world, in other words the monster shouldn’t be possible. This monster also has to be lethal. Normally the protagonist cues our reactions towards the monster: (s)he is afraid of and disgusted by the monster.

Tumbbad starts with an explanation of the movie world by the protagonist, in which the – for us – supernatural parts, are real parts of the movie world:


(If you want to listen to the excellent soundtrack of Tumbbad by Jesper Kyd to accompany this introduction, click here)

When the universe was created, the Goddess of Prosperity gave birth to 160 million gods. But the Goddess loved her first child above all, Hastar. But today, you won’t find his name in any ancient scriptures, because he wanted all of the goddess’ food and gold. He managed getting the gold, but just as he went for the food all the other gods attacked him. With every blow, Hastar shattered into fragments, but before he could dissolve into stardust, the Goddess saved him. On one condition; he would never be worshipped and be forgotten forever. For aeons, Hastar slept in his mother’s womb. But one day, our ancestors invoked him and built a shrine in his name. They say, since that day, all the God’s wrath has been raining on Tumbbad.

Counter argument 1 – Vinyak and the grandmother:

But in part one, Vinyak didn’t know about Hastar yet. He is afraid and disgusted by the grandmother in his house. Not only he is afraid of her, but the entire village wouldn’t dare to come close. The sleeping grandmother is in chains for a reason, she is dangerous. And how can she live so long? The grandmother is a monster and at least part one should count as horror.


> Yes, if the protagonist cues us how to perceive a monster, part one might be seen as horror. It is definitely the scariest part of the film, and the images of the grandmother and some other scenes are classic horrific. The clipping of her toe nails is by the book disgusting! (Toe nails being impure: a mixture of categories; both part of the body and not part of the body: an ambiguity.) Still, before part one starts, the audience has already been cued by the same protagonist how it really is in the movie world.


Counter argument 2 – Audience horror:

But if it defies our scientific boundaries and scares us, then isn’t it horror for us?

> I don’t think it works like this. If a movie world accepts the ‘monsters’ as fitting within their cultural and scientific categories, I think the audience adapts as well. Maybe in this movie counts as ‘proof’ , since part two and three are a lot less scary. However, this counter argument did stay with me for a bit. I noticed Tumbbad was categorised as mythological drama on an Indian site (which I would agree with). On Wikipedia it is described as period horror, and ImdB categorises it as drama, horror, thriller. I can imagine this movie sooner seen as horror by Western eyes, because they are introduced to unfamiliar cultural elements, that don’t fit our cultural categories nicely.

The word monster has its origin in the Latin monere which means to warn. In this sense Tumbbad is a story about monsters. A warning about the inner monster of greed that can lurk in each of us.



3 thoughts on “Tumbbad (2018) and a Discussion about Defining Horror

  1. I still cringe when Those Who Categorize decide that the inclusion of mythology or folklore makes something strictly Fantasy, when it is rightly both Horror AND Fantasy. Since most of our modern Horror derives from folk and fairy lore if not the Greeks, we are losing so many truly scary (and uncanny) stories this way along with glorious strands of Horror DNA. It looks like serious attempts to include either the true nature of or actual entity from folk/fairy tale traditions or mythology in a terror tale results in the “horror” being subverted to remarket it as Fantasy…yet look at that really bad rendition of the same in those tacky “Leprechaun” movies. Perhaps this means that the key to getting a “Horror” label is to exploit stereotype and puppetry. What a shame the very real inference is there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ty for your comment! I agree with you that something can be both and there are definitely treasures hidden in a culture’s mythology and folklore. I do like to think about what makes something (or part of something) horror and to see how far Carroll’s theory can take me to define that (part).


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