In this paper, Kalrav Vashishtha attempts an analysis of the representation of childhood in Hindi-language films Makdee (2002) and Tumbbad (2018). The two films, with their contrary concerns, tones and objectives, offer a vast ground for understanding the edifice of childhood in South Asian cultures.
Childhood is often seen as the site of wonder, joy and adventure. What is often skipped out of this optimistic construction is that which lurks beneath the wonder, which often lies at the end of a thrilling adventure, which dims the gleaming light of joy - Horror. There goes on a ceaseless play of fantastical stories in the mind of a child. Children – unassailed by a constricting knowledge of social customs and realities – observe people and situations keenly, and colour these outlines with their vivid imagination. Creaky wooden floorboards become ghosts under the bed, unseemly strangers turn into demons and witches. Behind this exaggerated sense of reality lies children’s desire to understand and define the world, using whatever tools of knowledge they have at hand.
This enormous potential of children’s unrestricted imagination is tapped in fantasy and horror literature and cinema. There are innumerable books and films that construct their fantastical narratives through the perspective of an uninitiated, outsider child, using her as a proxy for the equally unsuspecting reader/watcher. Cinema finds itself at a special advantage here, for fantasy has a rich association with the visual and the visceral. Fantasy films extensively feature children, and very often the narrative is a bildungsroman for the central character(s), for example, the Harry Potter series (2001-2011), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and most animated films. Horror films also have a time-tested affinity for child characters. Children of the Damned (1964), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980) and It (2017) are just a few examples from Hollywood.
In the course of this paper, I will make case studies of two Hindi-language films: Rahi Anil Barve’s 2018 folk-horror film, Tumbbad; and Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2002 horror-comedy film, Makdee (Spider). My project therein would be to analyse the representation of children and childhood in the selected films. The two films have quite little in common except the umbrella genre of horror. Makdee is a film made for children, with an appropriately sanitised screenplay, set somewhere in the Hindi-speaking belt of India. On the other hand, Tumbbad, set in a village in the state of Maharashtra, is a dark and horrifying film made specifically for an adult audience. Hence, it is not surprising that their conceptions and constructions of childhood are vastly different.
Ancestral Horrors and Avaricious Children: Tumbbad
Anil Barve’s Tumbbad constructs the myth of the Goddess of Prosperity, the progenitor of the universe, and her avaricious son Hastar, who tried to have her wealth and grain all for himself, but was banished by the other gods to a life of oblivion and seclusion. The Goddess however, sheltered him in her womb for eternity. This supernatural lore is reverberated in the human characters of the film: a family in the village of Tumbbad, whose ancestors discovered the secret of Hastar, and thus the key to an unending treasure. The secret has been lost for a generation when Chapter One of the film begins. The protagonist, Vinayak, and his brother Sadashiv are young children, born out of wedlock to the wealthy landlord Sarkar. Their mother shelters them in a secluded hut, along with Sarkar’s mother – a woman cursed by Hastar’s bite to an unending life of suffering.
A still from Tumbbad. Source: heavenofhorror.com
Vinayak tries to extract the information about the treasure from his grandmother, showing early signs of greed – a disease, as treated by the film, that results in a painful, monstrous (non-) end. Later in life, an adult Vinayak goes back to his dadi (grandmother), who tells him that not everything one inherits should be claimed, but Vinayak unearths the Goddess’ womb, and restarts the accursed cycle of greed. A child learns what he sees in his parents; in Vinayak’s case, he wants to surpass his father’s incapacity, and stake a glorious claim in his family’s ancestry. Hastar’s curse was extended to the family when they first discovered his secret, and has passed down to every male member. An interesting parallel here would be the American horror film, Hereditary (Ari Aster 2018), wherein a family suffers the fulfillment of a horrific plan laid down by the recently deceased matriarch. The bodies of the two children of the family become sites to be occupied by a mythical demon-king, with all the characters ridden of any free will. Tumbbad, though, presents the simple alternative all along: of ending this cycle of hereditary greed and stepping away, but that does not happen until it is too late.
The Final Chapter of the film starts with Vinayak’s pubescent son, Pandurang imitating the drill of gathering gold coins from Hastar’s loincloth and climbing back to safety. The child is learning the work-skills of his father, without knowing what any of it means. Before his first trip to Tumbbad, he tells his mother that he will inform her of what lies at the end of that journey once he returns. The trip proves to be a rite of passage into manhood for Pandurang, where he earns one gold coin for himself. After his return, in typical masculine behaviour, he tells his mother to rather focus on her domestic duties. Proud of his manly achievements, he leaves his mother’s lap to end up with his father’s concubine. He tells her that he will marry her when he grows up, and all the wealth of the house will be theirs; and spends his salary to sleep with her. Films targeted towards a child audience define, and thus construct, an ideal childhood. They endeavour to sanitise the surroundings and idealise the child. But films such as Tumbbad, meant for an adult audience, are not constrained by the same regulations. Note that it is in the space of a movie made for adults that a child’s body is sexualized. This shocking portrayal of child sexuality is a topical nod to the pleasures that Vinayak, and thus also his son, thinks come with money. (In another sequence, Vinayak takes his son to a brothel and gives him a stack of cash to spend.) This blatant sexualization could have a reason in the manner that adults view children not as being in their own regard, but as adults-in-making; and their imitation of adulthood is seen as funny or mature, depending on the situation.
Pandurang suggests to his father that they go one last time and retrieve the whole loincloth of Hastar instead of gathering a few coins. He wants to build on and expand his father’s enterprise. Due to several unfortunate events, Vinayak has to sacrifice himself to protect his son, and is cursed like his grandmother. When Pandurang meets his degenerate father, the latter offers him a loincloth full of coins. The boy has seen enough wreckage caused by that jinxed wealth, so turns down the offer and leaves the village never to return. Unlike Hereditary, Tumbbad ends on an optimistic note: the child forgoes the hereditary temptation and decides to forge his own path ahead.
The Hilarity of Horror: Makdee
Vishal Bhardwaj’s directorial debut Makdee (2002) is a children’s film about the joys and horrors of childhood, and about modern-age science and rationality upstaging the superstitions of old. The film begins with a child’s point-of-view, who is stealing the village butcher’s chickens. A host of men join the butcher, Kallu in chasing the boy, until he enters an old mansion. Legend has it that the mansion houses an ancient witch (the eponymous spider) who transforms all those who enter her web into animals. Next we meet twin-sisters Chunni and Munni who spend their time happily going back and forth from school. The two sisters (played by the same actor) are diametrically opposed in temperament. Chunni is playful, fearless and carefree; while Munni is studious, afraid and cautious. Chunni is always on an adventure, while Munni is busy doing her homework; Chunni impersonates her sister to get her allowance as well from their father, while Munni is sick of trying to keep her sister in line. They represent the ego and id of childhood, as it were, giving the child viewers two distinct models to choose from and relate to. While Chunni takes advantage of Munni’s naïveté, her life is turned upside down when her sister is separated. These motherless girls become the caretakers of each other, even when they are fighting.
The central conflict of the film arises when Munni is driven into the haunted house, where the witch apparently has transformed her into a chicken. A devastated Chunni is told that her sister would be turned back to normal when the witch has gotten a hundred live chickens. This puts an end to Chunni’s liveliness. She is forced to steal chickens every night from Kallu’s house. She feels responsible for her younger sister’s metamorphosis, and cannot share her burden with her father for the witch has swore her to silence. The film makes us sympathise with this young child who has been burdened with pressures of adulthood, all her joviality replaced with gravity.
With chance events, Chunni discovers that the witch is actually just a petty criminal who, with the assistance of local constables, has captured all those who enter the mansion in a ditch and is making them dig for a precious statue. The captives being mostly children, there is an echo of Chunni’s forced stealing here in a systematic racket of child labour. With Kallu’s intervention, the putative witch ends up in the ditch herself, her lot being getting a good beating at the hands of her child labourers. The final sequence of the film features a village function, where Chunni’s courage and scientific temperament are praised by everyone. Chunni disappears from the scene and sets loose Kallu’s chickens again. The child – who has triumphed over the superstitious mindset of adults, and is finally restored to her childlike exuberance – has the last laugh.
Stills from Makdee. Source: memsaabstory.com
The message of this ‘horror’ film is unequivocally tied with the spirit of childhood. A terrifying prospect is reduced to be an object of ridicule due to the acts of a child. The film punctures any sense of fantasy with pure reason, and in doing so, it is asking of its predominantly young audience to leave the world of superstition and fantastical folklore, and adopt a scientific perspective towards all problems in life. The film is not a didactic charter for children, as it never posits the seriousness of Munni over the jollity of Chunni. When Munni is taken away, Chunni is forced to reconcile her playfulness with seriousness and intelligence. She completes her homework, and becomes attentive in classes. Munni’s abduction coerces the collapsing of the childlike and the adultlike in Chunni’s behaviour, making her a hybrid agent who is capable of unravelling the mystery of the witch.
As remarked earlier, Tumbbad and Makdee conceive the state of childhood very differently, given their divergent concerns and audiences; and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to locate a pattern between their representations of children. The former posits a metanarrative of greed over the plot and the characters, which forces them to act in a certain way, showing how human beings are supremely corruptible. The latter posits a metanarrative of superstition in the figure of the witch and her terror, showing how primitive, irrational and blind an entire community can be. But both these metanarratives are broken towards the end of the two films, and the breakers, interestingly, are children. Pandurang shuts the door on a hereditary trait of greed, while Chunni removes the veil from the human face of the supernatural. Both of them are adventurous children who are not scared easily. They will be better adults than those who preceded them, because they have freed themselves of the ailments of old. And in their hands safely rests the future of their worlds.
Works referred to:
Aster, Ari. Hereditary. A24, 2018. Film.
Barve, Rahi Anil, et al, directors. Tumbbad. Eros International, 2018. Film.
Bhardwaj, Vishal. Makdee. Percept Picture Company, 2002. Film.
Kalrav Vashishtha is a major in English from Hindu College, University of Delhi. Behind all those thick layers of self-consciousness, you'd find an avid workoholic and diehard reader. Studying only literature has rendered him feckless for any normal conversation, but he tries his best to appear sane. He finds solace in watching films and entertaining friends.