Two brothers are explaining their complicated family history – the older Saji to a counsellor and the younger Bobby, to his girlfriend. The scene cuts between their individual narratives. Bobby’s girlfriend jokes – “How many mummies and daddies do you have? I want a complete list before sunrise.” Meanwhile, Saji tells the psychiatrist that it really hurts when people call them fatherless. Both brothers cry. Bobby silently sheds a tear as he gazes at the sky. But Saji holds the psychiatrist and heaves. His body shakes with grief. His tears and snot wet the psychiatrist’s shirt. It is as if a dam has cracked. I can’t remember the last time I saw a man howl like that in an Indian film
Kumbalangi Nights is the story of broken men. Kumbalangi is a small island near Kochi. Saji and Bobby live here with a younger brother, Franky, in a house that is unfinished – literally and metaphorically. There is no door and every squalid corner seems to reverberate with old slights and grudges. There are no women here. Saji, who cooks their meals, is sort of a mother substitute except when Bobby pushes him too hard. Then Saji and him get into a fight in which they inflict pain by squeezing each other’s privates. Meanwhile, Frankie watches and says, “This house is nothing but hell.” A fourth brother Boney sees the brawl from afar and turns around. He wants no part of this family
Neither does Shammi, played by Fahadh Faasil. Shammi is a control freak. His need for order and neatness is almost creepy. Shammi takes great pride in his immaculate moustache. The first time we see him, he looks at himself in the mirror and declares, with pride, “…the complete man”. So when Shammi’s sister-in-law falls in love with Bobby, we know that there will be trouble.
But Kumbalangi Nights isn’t content to be just a thwarted love story. Debutant director Madhu C Narayanan and writer Syam Pushkaran create an exquisitely layered portrait of love and loss, compassion and redemption and above all, the meaning of masculinity. The ugliness of the brothers’ lives is in sharp contrast to their stunning surroundings – we know that Kerala is God’s own country but cinematographer Shyju Khalid showcases it as a slice of heaven itself. The lush shades of green, the moonlight bouncing off the placid waters and the shimmering fish nets underline the ache at the heart of this film. So does the memorable soundtrack by Sushin Shyam.
The acting is stellar but the stand-outs are Soubin Shahir and Fahadh Faasil. Soubin is exquisite as the tormented head of this frayed family. And only an actor the calibre of Faasil could have prevented Shammi from becoming a joke. I found the climax tonally jarring but it didn’t crash the film because Faasil is so in control of his art. So when the big reveal arrived, I connected the dots and emotionally, it didn’t feel as outlandish as the action on screen.
Kumbalangi Nights works like a quietly magical poem. There is a subdued melancholy and lyricism in every frame. You can see the film on Amazon Prime.