By Ritwika Sharma
About a week after having watched Kumbalangi Nights (Malayalam, 2019), I had followed the movie on all forms of social media. While carefully screening their Instagram handle, I came across two posts dating back to May-June 2018, when the movie’s team had put out calls inviting candidates to audition for roles. It signified to me a certain sense of transparency and openness. At that instant, my appreciation for the movie increased manifold and I was convinced, one more time, that those involved with this masterpiece collectively had their hearts in the right place.
Kumbalangi Nights narrates the story of four brothers who share a less than cordial relationship. Related to each other through different sets of parents, the Napoleon brothers Saji (Soubin Shahir), Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi), Bobby (Shane Nigam) and Frankie (Mathew Thomas) reside in the fishing village of Kumbalangi, Kerala. What is evident is that there home is literally and figuratively in a bit of shambles, and even a peaceful dinner together at the end of the day is too much to ask for. Other prominent characters who complete this story are Bobby’s romantic interest Babymol (Anna Ben), her sister Simmy (Grace Antony), and brother-in-law Shammi (Fahadh Faasil).
You might have heard this several times since the movie released that there are no ‘heroes’ in the movie, just people. People like you and me who commit mistakes, repent them, but who might not know how to undo them. The least these people (and we) can do is to make the most of situations while still knowing that we are falling short. Real people face issues in life. Kumbalangi Nights does a spectacular job of bringing these issues to the fore without either making hapless victims out of the people who are at the proverbial receiving end or demonising the ones who may be the root cause for such issues (albeit unintentionally). What amazed me the most was the movie’s uncanny ability to handle multiple issues with such sensitivity that is, sometimes, unheard of in cinema. Here is my curated list of five subjects which I believe Kumbalangi Nights addressed in the most unassuming, subtle, and heartfelt fashion:
There are not too many movie scenes which have moved me to tears, which is why I knew that when the eldest brother Saji cried in front of the counsellor, I will cry with him. His visit to the counsellor was preceded by a crucial moment where he admitted to his younger brother Frankie that he was losing his mind and needed help. As a nation, we are still resting on a shaky ground while talking about issues of mental health, and seeking clinical help can be as uphill a task as reeling under the effects of mental health concerns. For obvious reasons then, it must have taken immense courage for Saji when he acknowledged that something had been plaguing his heart and mind.
For me, the mainstreaming of concerns around mental health is significant. It is to the movie’s credit that Saji’s visit to the counsellor is played out subtly, and with immense respect to his state of mind. The Saji-Frankie exchange preceding the visit, which I would say was beautifully underplayed, marks a watershed for depicting clinical mental health issues with the sensitivity they deserve.
Oh, the beautiful irony that unearths itself during the scene in the cinema hall where, for a fleeting moment, we are faced with the prospect of watching Arjun Reddy play out on the screen and off of it (between Babymol and Bobby). While the pall bearer of toxic masculinity in the movie found refuge under Shammi’s perfectly trimmed moustache, the tone-deaf proclamation of ‘I am a man’ comes from Bobby. Make no mistake, Babymol does go back to a whining Bobby – however, not with an upfront apology but a well thought-out rebuke when he refuses to see the juvenility of his actions. In a movie which is claimed by some to not be about its women, I take this to be a momentous step.
Throughout the movie, Babymol and Bobby’s relationship focuses rather intensely on her agency. The proverbial ‘asking out’ routine is turned on its head when she inquires rather cheekily if he is seeing someone, it is her frustration that propels the worry about ‘true love going out-of-fashion’, during the beginning of their relationship, it is her unrelenting efforts, more than his, that help them sustain (this claim is open to debate, so bring it on!). In a dating culture that is fixated with shaky concepts such as the ‘chase’ and ‘playing hard-to-get’, the depiction of Babymol and Bobby’s relationship turns conventional rules upside down, one tiny step at a time.
Shammi’s toxic masculinity plays out in the most sinister fashion. He considers himself the sole caregiver for ‘three hapless women’ (as he describes his wife, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law). He considers it a matter of right to take decisions for them even when not asked to do so. I can truly imagine this situation play out in any average Indian household irrespective of which part of the country that might be in. It is a bit of a bummer to wait till the end of the movie for Shammi’s wife to take up the cudgels against his toxic masculinity. But then, maybe that was the point – such male entitlement plays out so subtly in everyday lives that the person at the receiving end fails to acknowledge that they are victims, in some sense of the term. For that, I give full credit to Kumbalangi Nights for making us (the audience) wince every time Shammi twirled his moustache and unleashed his ‘Raymond’ manliness on the women in his house.
Shammi could have conjured up a million and one reasons to jeopardise Babymol and Bobby’s blossoming relationship but the one which becomes most apparent is the difference in social status between their families.
The four men from the Napoleon household do odd jobs – for a long time, I was not certain what Saji does for a living (I was quite sure though that Bobby did not do much!). Shammi makes it evident that he and his family are ‘class’ apart from them – he runs a salon for men and rents his house as a homestay for tourists. He does not mince his words while proclaiming that Bobby’s house was not impressive enough for him, completely dismissing the possibility of Bobby’s union with Babymol. Saji has to assure Shammi that their home is well-connected by a road, and sanitation is not an issue for the inhabitants of their land. The thought of love transcending boundaries of class and status does not come naturally to Shammi who cannot fathom building ties with a family like Bobby’s. Bobby himself seems aware of the fact that his and Babymol’s families do not match, which is why he momentarily suggests that they break up. However, even for a perennially out-of-work Bobby, the prospect of taking up fishing appears to be too low profile. The class divides in Kumbalangi’s universe are subtly etched, much like everywhere else, and the characters in Kumbalangi Nights try to rise above them every once in a while.
Dysfunctionality of families
The dysfunctionality of the brothers’ family becomes apparent when Frankie, the youngest, calls their house the worst in the entire village. Despite Saji’s unrelenting attempts to prove otherwise, even he gauges the truth that rings through that statement. At one other point in the movie, Babymol playfully asks Bobby to make a list of the number of fathers and mothers he has. Bobby’s expression does nothing to defy the pain and longing he feels for a family and a home with some semblance of normalcy.
However, the dysfunctionality of the family in Kumbalangi Nights is not pinned on anybody. I will admit that I found it hard to empathise with the younger brothers’ (Bobby and Frankie) mother who refuses to take them back (or come back to them) in what is an imminent need of the hour. It is evident that Frankie rues the lack of a parent-like figure in his life, which probably explains his unusual camaraderie with Bonny. Their relationship constituted a slight aberration in an otherwise frictional dynamic between the four brothers. In fact, barring Saji, nobody tries to put up a charade of happiness or normalcy where there is none. The arrival of two women in the household, through two very different circumstances, ushers in a wave (maybe not a tidal wave!) of happiness in the household, and the men find a way of sustaining which does not involve unleashing violence on each other (though the taking of constant digs at each other continues).
The movie does not judge the fact that the men of the house required some external forces, in the form of Nylah (Jasmine Mètivier), who Bonny is romantically involved with, and Sathi (Sheela Rajkumar), wife of Saji’s deceased friend, to mend their house. At the same time, it does not make otherworldly harbingers of hope out of these women who just about bring some sanity into the goings-on. It was refreshing to see that the dysfunctional ways of the brothers do not magically disappear, and their familial discord begins to chip away only bit-by-bit through the efforts of everyone in general and no one in particular. Years of dysfunctionality in families, or between family members cannot be suddenly wished away, and Kumbalangi Nights does a fine job of displaying that.
Honourable mention: Garbage management
Right after a conversation where the possibility of a break-up with Bobby looms large, Babymol chides him for not being up to the mark (for her), and to not leave the plastic water bottle behind in the bushes (where Bobby throws it after gulping down water). He dutifully follows the instruction and picks up the plastic bottle before we cut to the next scene. If I could make a list of the things I find right with this movie, this moment would sit somewhere among the top five. Safe to say that subtlety is one of the strongest suits of this movie.
I could write a lot more about how Kumbalangi Nights is a collection of the finest moments of cinema I have watched in recent years. But this movie is an experience, one which I have treated myself to several times in the last few weeks. For a primer on the headstrongness of women, normalising of toxic masculinity by men (and sometimes, even women), the naiveite and goofiness of budding romance, and efforts in making broken families work, watch this gem now!
[Ritwika Sharma is a lawyer based in Bengaluru, Karnataka.]