Kumbalangi Nights (2019), the Malayalam film directed by debutant Madhu C Narayanan, remains with you for a long time, seeps into your body and mind, disturbing your consciousness, especially the way you build your male identity; and how your male identity manifests in relationships with females, in relationships with males; and above all in the development of the male ‘being’ itself. It celebrates feminism by breaking the role models determined by patriarchy and women decision makers at all critical junctures. It celebrates womanhood, not by pitching men against women and women emerging victorious, but by the women bringing in direction, depth and meaning in male-female relationships and forging gender equality at home and elsewhere.
But, this is not all; as the script-writer of the film, Syam Pushkaran, says repeatedly in his interviews, Kumbalangi Nights has multiple layers of meaning. The film is not set in an upper class, urban backdrop. Neither is it set in a lost brahminical or feudal social order unlike the general tendency of hero centric Malayalam films. Kumbalangi Nights is woven around life of people in a seaside village, Kumbalangi, which incidentally is also a tourist attraction. The film reminds one of the settings of KG George’s films. The crew of the film locates sophistication not in manufactured urban, upmarket or high-caste setting, but the finesse is in the everyday life of ordinary people. It gives honesty, beauty and originality to the film.
Another similarity to KG George’s films is that Kumbalangi Nights explores the politics of the inner self, how the structuring of your inner being defines the nature of relationships - individual and social. This, the director and the script writer achieve, not through dramatic long-winding and masculine dialogues such as the ones made out for superstars such as Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi in the Malayalam film industry but through short, relevant closer to life and punchy conversations. Incidentally, a dialogue delivered by Mammootty in Ee Shabdom Innathe Shabdom, is about 4 minutes long. Such dialogues also contributed to the anointing of a few actors as superstars; and incidentally, only males were made to deliver such dialogues leaving out the possibility for women to be such “superstars”.
Kumbalangi Nights does not have a star, for that matter, not even a hero. Fahadh Faasil, the leading actor in Malayalam film industry, plays the role of an anti-hero (Shammi). There is no slow motion visuals here to depict a larger than life arrival of a star, which has become a common practice in the industry. Every actor has a role to play and everyone has been given their due in such a way that if the character is taken out, it affects the central message of the film. Everyone performs their role effortlessly while inviting co-actors to do justice to their roles and thereby making no actor to stand out as a star. Shared opportunities becomes a theme and practice in Kumbalangi Nights.
The film turns upside down the concept of ‘virtue’ and relieves ‘virtue’ from the shackles of moralisation. In the narrative, what’s seemingly moral is brutal and what’s seemingly anarchic is empathetic; the hero is anti-hero and the delinquents are saviours. This view is highly political and rationally irreligious. It is political because it redefines power dynamics between male and female as well as dominant and the dominated. It is rationally irreligious because moralising virtue is intensely religious. More importantly, moralised virtue is overwhelmingly generated by social, political and economic system controlled by men; and women are seen as the carriers of morality. In the film,Shammi, handsome, always smiling, well-shaven with a manicured moustache, ironed shirt and riding a Bullet motorbike, is a ‘Complete Man’, as he describes himself looking at his image in the mirror. He calls his wife, Simi (Grace Antony), “Mole” in Malayalam, sounding very intimate and romantic, talks to his mother-in-law (Ambika Rao) respectfully and considers his wife’s sister, Babymol (Anna Ben ) as his own. Yet, he maintains his masculine authority, which transmits a demand for fearful respect from the women in the household. He enjoys being a male breadwinner. Shammi symbolises the “ideal” man - good-looking, patriarch, loving, caring and in control of the average household where men and women share these values of peace and tranquility.
The contrarian situation is one of anarchy. Here are four brothers living in a house without doors. No one cares for anyone, there is no single authority, no rules, no discipline, no one to cook food, no time to eat, no time to sleep, no one has a regular income either. They spend time idling with friends at the seaside or in the local bar. All of them seem purposeless in life. Their mother left them and took refuge in a community centre for the destitute run by missionaries. Their father died. When the elder brother’s mother died, their father married another woman, who had a child from her first marriage, which gives a feeling that the siblings have many mothers and many fathers, giving a despicable perception of the family in the eyes of the society.
The elder brother Saji (Soubin Shahir) shows no remorse in living off the income of a Tamiliian, Murugan (Ramesh Thilak) whom he supported when Murugan eloped with a girl Sathy (Sheela Rajkumar). Murugan earns a living by ironing clothes. Saji’s younger brother, Boney (Sreenath Bhasi), who cannot speak, is an instrumentalist in a local music group. Bobby (Shane Nigam), the third brother, just idles around with his friend and considers, fishing, an activity that he knows, not decent enough to be pursed as a profession. The youngest one, Frankie (Mathew Thomas), studies in a residential school since he happened to get a scholarship and refuses to bring his school friends to his house, which he considers the worst in the locality. None of them have any qualms in eating food that Frankie cooks, while he is in the house on his holidays. The siblings get into verbal and physical brawls for no rhyme or reason.
Kumbalangi Nights builds on these contradictions and depicts how the virtuous ‘normal’ could reveal itself to be extremely poisonous and destructive while apparent immoral ‘abnormal’ could be an adobe of love and empathy. It also shows that when confronted decisively by the supposedly underdog, the ‘complete man’ can transform himself into a narcissist and demonstrate the violent streaks in a supremacist male.
The uniqueness and the ingenuity of Kumbalangi Nights is that the crew manages this metamorphosis through the agency of the women characters who deploy their empathy, will and power to change the stimulants and reveal the real meanings of the situations. The film creatively depicts the inherent malevolence of patriarchy and subtle but powerful assertion of women to be heard and accepted as equals in inter-personal relationships. Women characters are of their own and most of the time, taking decisive steps in directing the destiny, of themselves and of their male associates too. Women characters in the film are not passive spectators; neither are they victims of destinies nor adjuncts to the male characters.
Sumeesha (Riya Saira) is clear and determined in proposing to Bobby’s friend despite comments by Bobby on her fiancé’s appearance. Sumeesha and Babymol are employed in a local resort and they are comfortable with the work which gives them confidence unlike the anarchist brothers who despise work. Babymol takes the lead, at all critical moments, in the blossoming of her relationships with Bobby. She is in full control of herself in all situations. Babymol is extremely empathetic to the plight of Bobby, not sympathetic or possessive, which helps him overcome his emotional crisis and to identify his expertise in fishing as a vocation. Pregnant Sathy shows exemplary presence of mind in deciding not to name Saji in her husband’s death. Sathy’s empathy transforms Saji to realise his true self and he finds meaning in taking care of Sathy and his friend’s child in her. The mother of the three siblings, who had left behind her children and chose to go on God’s mission, is a strong willed woman who knows that she should not return to the house in spite of repeated pleas by her children.
While Bobby evolves through his relationship with Babymol, Saji goes through a personal crisis when his closest friend Murugan challenges him by stating that Saji is living off the labour of Murugan. Saji attempts suicide, and though he survives, Murugan dies when he attempts to rescue Saji. In a series of intense and dramatic events, Saji purges his emotional burdens before a psychiatrist (Ajith Moorkooth ), where he’s taken to by his youngest brother Frankie. The doorless house suddenly becomes liveable when Nylah (Jasmine Metivier), an African-American tourist establishes a relationship with Bobby and when Sathy joins in with her newly born baby. All the four brothers, based on a suggestion by the youngest one, decide to visit their mother. There is nothing normal in this situation from the perspective of a ‘complete man’. Nevertheless, it is guided by empathy, humanness and equality of gender.
Meanwhile, it is the assertive dialogue by Simi that breaks the shell of a malevolent Shammi, when he starts using despicable term of ‘edi’ and ‘podi’ instead of ‘mole’ to address her sister. Babymol, takes courage to question Shammi about mocking Bobby over his multiple parentage and rejecting her decision to marry him. When Shammi justifies his language, reminding Babymol that he is like his elder brother, Simi sheds of her timidity and states, ‘Ethu type chettanayalum maryadakku samsarikanam’ (“Which every type of elder brother you are, make sure you speak with respect”), which is beyond the capacity of the ‘complete man’ to tolerate. Shammi then metamorphosizes into his violent self, and assaults his wife, mother-in-law and Babymol. He then confronts Bobby who comes in search of Babymol and subdues him. Only the combined effort of all the four brothers can finally overpower the ‘complete man’.
Kumbalangi Nights makes men and women equal; but probably women more equal than men. It raises serious questions on male superiority and patriarchy, which need not be of that variety where a ‘karanavar’ sits majestically on a throne or when a powerful male utters despicable dialogues about women. It comments on patriarchy that is here, there, everywhere, in all walks of life and in all our decision making processes. The beauty and originality of this film is that the male characters realise, genuinely, the change making capacity of women. Transformation takes place in the ordinary life. It needs to be societal.
I this context, I doubt whether it would be the right question to ask whether Kumbalangi Nights passes the globally used tests on feminism - the Bedchel Test and Mako Mori Test. The Bechdel test emphasises female relationships as ‘true’ feminist representations in film while the Mako Mori test emphasises on female independence and self-reliance. The Bedchel Test asks three questions whether the film has “(i) two women (ii) having a conversation (iii) which is not about a man”. The Mako Mori test asks whether the film has “(i) one female character (ii) who gets her own narrative arc (iii) that is not about supporting a man’s story.” Kumbalangi Nights creates its own narrative on feminism. All female characters have their own narratives and the arc is to disrupt male dominance in relationships and they successfully asserts principles of equality and empathy in those relationships.
The film has other layers too. For instance, it transcends religion and communities. When Simi tells Babymol that Bobby is a Christian, she responds, ‘Eee Jesusine namukku ariyathathano’ (“Is this Jesus so unfamiliar to us?”). This statement is not anti-religious, it does not ridicule another religion, but asserts familiarity of all religions. Sameesha finds beauty in dark skin and so does Boney, who befriends an African-American tourist.
The film is shot mostly during nights. Cameraman Shyju Khalid does not isolate the visual feel of the narrative from the essence of the film. It merges. So is the case of the music by Sushin Shyam, which gels with the mood. Editor Saiju Sreedharan does a tight editing, giving no opportunity to the viewer to suggest that this portion could have been left out.
At the end of the day, film production is business too and so, a salute to the banners of Fahadh Faasil and Friends as well as Working Class Hero for venturing into investing in such a film. Kumbalangi Nights raises the bar for not filmmakers but for the audience too. Indications that people have decided to view the film a second time, bodes well for a society that saw massive mobilisation against a Supreme Court verdict that allowed women of all ages the right of entry in Sabarimala Temple, challenging patriarchal notions of faith, priesthood and gender based discriminations in religious practices.
(J John, founder of labour journal, ‘Labour File’ and former executive director of Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), New Delhi, is an independent researcher and writer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)