If you are disturbed by Shahid Kapoor-starrer ‘Kabir Singh’ glorifying and celebrating a abusive, chauvinist brat, revisit writer Shyam Pushkaran’s Kumbalangi Nights, a Malayalam movie that makes 'toxic masculinity' a deranged villain.
Chauvinism comes in a well-dressed, well-groomed package, but beneath the perfect facade are creepy smiles, a dirty sense of entitlement and a penchant for abuse, says the subtext of Malayalam cinema’s latest hit, Kumbalangi Nights.
Set in a small town in Kochi, Kumbalangi Nights tells the tale of four brothers who live in a half built house on one side of the backwaters. On the other side of the backwaters is a house inhabited by three women, that appears happy and perfect. The dichotomy of these houses plays out throughout the movie, with the director stripping off stereotypes one by one. Looks don’t necessarily tell us the whole story, debutant director Madhu C Narayanan argues.
The brothers are in a constant fight with their past and each other. They are full of flaws and not very affable in the society. At times, there is a hint of self-hatred for not being “manly” enough to land a girl or provide for one.
Enter the perfect, overbearing neighbour Shammy albeit with the blood-curling looks and creepy smiles that he gives out – impeccably portrayed by Fahadh Fasil. With his entry, the dynamic of the picture-perfect house on the other side shifts entirely. Shammi declares himself 'The Complete Man' and a ‘hero’. He is entrusted with the responsibility of 'taking care' of three women, considers cooking ‘unmanly’ and is a die-hard member of the moral policing party in the small seaside town of Kumabalangi.
His tough demeanour scares off the neighbourhood kids and makes even his otherwise vivacious newly-wed wife cower in fear. The audience isn't immune to the mad twinkle in his eyes either, that makes sudden appearances amidst seemingly normal conversations-- most of them revolving around the idea of 'masculinity'.
The makers of Kumblangi Nights give Shammy a crazy streak implying that that is what machismo boils down to -- madness.
Shammy’s psychopathic tendencies are deeply entrenched in his aggressive masculinity; even his smallest actions like shifting his chair to the helm of the dining table and expressing ‘concern’ over his sister-in-law’s good-for-nothing lover are cause for concern. But even when we feel things don’t seem normal with this guy, the community in Kumbalangi cannot put a finger on it. ‘Epilepsy’ and ‘anger issues’ are popular narratives that cover up his condition. Aggressive masculinity after all, makes men a ‘hero’ in our society, Kumbalangi Nights rues.
The four dysfunctional warring brothers, on the other hand, find common ground when strong, outspoken women enter their lives. The women overhaul the once chauvinistic lives of the brothers, offer them purpose and gives form and beauty to their “incomplete” home.
Even though the three brothers while away time drinking, brawling, loafing around and wooing women for sex, they are fully aware of their flaws. There is a willingness to be socially aware, perhaps borne out of the desire to be loved and cared for.
Bobby understands consent with a slap from his beau and Saji decides to meet a therapist because he figures “something is not right.” Social standing and class do not necessarily define wokeness in Kumbalangi.
At the end of it all, you want to thank the women in Kumbalangi. Would we have figured out how mentally disturbed Shammy is if his wife and sister-in-law hadn’t stood up for themselves? Would the lives of the brothers have found meaning if they hadn't found courage and empathy in the eyes of the women they love? Kumbalangi Nights makes one ponder.
This article was first published on 5 March, 2019.