Kumbalangi Nights Shane Nigam Soubin Shahir
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Fifteen minutes into Kumbalangi Nights, after we have seen a family of scattered, aloof adults, we are laid into the spell of a song that envelops us like a warm blanket — ‘Cherathukal’ (meaning: earthen oil lamp). From the bickering of a broken family, we are suddenly thrust into a warm lullaby. It seems to hold our fingers gently and lead us into the rest of the film. It comes as the perfect opening sequence to Kumbalangi Nights.

To understand why, we need to look at what precedes the song — the buildup. An exposition sequence that is not just brilliant for how it introduces us to each character, but also for how it presents the very concept of a film about a dysfunctional family, its coexisting individuals, irrevocably bound to each other despite differences, unable to love or hate each other efficiently. If ‘Cherathukal’ is the dream, the sequence before it is like the reality that precedes it.

Every family has its many layers — what we like to portray, the secrets we don’t, the unresolved pain we bury, and the faith we show in each other. The build-up sequence of ‘Chirathukal’ creates magic by showing us all the layers distinctly. As I am ‘unlayering’ this sequence, I am breaking it into its invisible parts, where the real pleasure of the film lives. Bear in mind that my interpretation can be independent of the filmmaker’s intent because much of the subconscious film experience, what makes the film work or not, itself is independent of the filmmaker’s intent once the film is out into the world. 

The scene — and the film — begins with the youngest in the family, Frankie (Mathew Thomas). It makes sense because due to his ongoing education elsewhere, Frankie is a bit of an outsider. When we see him remember his home with hesitation and not fondness, it arouses a sense of mystery, a question about what could be wrong with this family. As Frankie reluctantly treads back home, the layers come through to us just as they do to him. 

Kumbalangi Nights

Notice how every time we see a character in this sequence, it tells us important information about their place in the family. Frankie is the outsider. Yet, he is a central part of the family — you can see that if things don’t go right in a few years, his disillusionment might turn him into his indifferent brother Bony (Sreenath Bhasi), which is why we see him bond with Bony better than with Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam). 

He is the heart of the family — we see him have flashes of memories of their mother, looking yearningly at a picture of Mary holding Baby Jesus, as though exemplary of ideal motherhood amid parentless disorder. He still addresses what his elder siblings have forgotten through booze or loafing around or the general indifference of adulthood. 

We hear the ‘Cherathukal’ theme first when Frankie stands and stares at their house from a distance, like a flash from the past just as he’s made to face the present. This theme remains attached to Frankie like it was being released from the reservoir of all the family’s memories in his heart. When he sits himself down and is bothered by a scrap lying on the couch, the music stops, it’s like the squalor of their present trampling over the nostalgia of the past. This sets the sequence in motion, as it will come full circle in the end when this little theme will be developed into a full song.

Later that night, we meet each family member, sifting through the layers of dysfunctionality. The first layer is sloth or the everyday act of boredom. The sequence begins on this note as our focus is laid on a shot of mundane materials in the foreground, while Bobby makes up for the human presence languidly walking into the house from the background. 

Kumbalangi Nights

We spend a good couple of minutes in this space without any dialogue as Saji enters from a room behind Bobby — notice again how we are bathed with the mood of sloth, in how Saji lets out a long, extensive, almost comical yawn. Director Madhu C Narayanan keeps a firm hold over this nothing moment — the techno music from Bobby’s speaker fills up the nothingness of this moment and adds a comic effect in contrast to their laidback figures (this music is wisely shut down soon when their dialogues take over). 

And notice the notes of character in their introduction. Bobby is the one who lounges around the house with his friend and his Bluetooth speaker; Saji, as Baradwaj Rangan points out here, is the ‘mother’ of the house, the matriarch in the absence of one, he’s the one who still holds this house dear, stays home more than others. So the first time we see him, he’s getting out of a room in the house. Similarly, later when we’ll see Bony for the first time, he’ll be on a boat outside the house, a symbol true to the disconnected outsider that he has become. 

The night air is filled with the screeching of insects and music playing on Bobby’s speaker, there is no background music until now, which further accentuates the sense of mundaneness. This is also done by how Saji entering this space is filmed as a long, unbroken take for 50 seconds with the camera panning languidly.

Kumbalangi Nights

It is Frankie once again who reminds them what they are all forgetting — that it is their father’s remembrance day and they should have been eating together. We have no idea until now of the equations that this family shares. This is where the dialogues begin, and we find our way into a new layer of the family. Saji, true to his nature of trying to hold on to the concept of a home, says a quiet prayer for his Dad, something that Bobby makes fun of. 

Through this exchange, we get to see the first glimpse of what must have been itching Frankie about memories of his home, and the second layer of life as a family — disagreement, indifference — that biting indifference and disrespect towards each other that becomes just as much a family member over time when you put in a bunch of humans together for long. We see that this is a family where time has loosened many threads, a vehicle whose dysfunction has become the norm, a space where the first words exchanged are harsh and a general lack of consideration for each other, where not much of their past is held in high regard.

Kumbalangi Nights

Saji and Bobby pick up a fight. Just as soon as they lock arms, Madhu C Narayanan plugs in a comical guitar-based theme. This becomes the next tonal shift and thus its next layer — brawl and fun. Frankie now sits down like a mock judge at a mock wrestling match. The tone of the sequence is lightened up, and it shows us that the child in the family is still alive, that perhaps it’s all just fun — that thing within a family where you pour out your frustration onto others and spar with them in a sort of familial repartee, a license that we derive out of irrevocable familiarity. We see here that this is still not a cold family, that they still do have some of their childhood in them, they still fight, and consequently, still, touch each other. Only the family that still cares about each other, that still looks up to each other, engages in such a brawl and repartee.

Narayanan then shifts his focus outside to a boat on which Bony is approaching the house. Suddenly, the fun sounds of their brawl are heard only in the distance, along with the tense sound of the cackle of insects biting through the nightly quietness, while the camera focuses on the troubled face of Bony. We are now looking at the house from the outsider Bony’s perspective, and through this subtle shift in tone, we see the next layer of family — pain and emptiness. Bony decides to turn the boat away from his home, and once again the focus turns to Frankie as a gentle Piano tune sets in. As Frankie gets up to exit this space, this is how the lightness, the fun of the layer just before this is suddenly twisted to reveal the unresolved pain, disharmony and a general sense of surrender that is at the heart of a dysfunctional family. 

Kumbalangi Nights

As Frankie gets up from his chair and makes his way outward, slowly the sounds of Saji and Bobby are drowned out by this melody of pain, the ruminative Piano notes are transfigured into a sharp cry of pain on the Cello in the dark of the night, leaving us with Frankie as the portrait of this broken layer of a family. It’s like the terse, painful after-thought of “why do I even care” that hits you after showing care instead of indifference, when that very act of care reminds you of the unresolved pain that’s at the heart of the mess, one that we spend days forgetting.

This is also an absolutely wonderful closure to this sequence. We entered into it through Frankie, and are now coming out of it with him, having learnt the secrets of his heart. That’s superb writing coupled with good, acute direction. With Frankie stepping outside, once again like our anchor into this life, we come to see the final layer of this sequence, of a dysfunctional family, emerging out of the quietness and emptiness of the night — yearning, for a time gone by, for a better time at home. 

This is finally where the notes of ‘Cherathukal’ set in. Frankie lies down on a makeshift swing and looks like a baby lying in a cradle as the opening guitar strokes of the song set in. It is the deepest layer of life as a family, one that looks back with a mix of cherishing and despair at times when things were better, or could have been better, when things made better sense. 

Kumbalangi Nights

It is the feeling that is not addressed during the waking day, which is why ‘Cherathukal,’ a song about the gentlest of hopes still lingering, like a lamp lit in the midst of darkness, floats in only at night, washing over their asleep, unconscious bodies like a dream. The film could have just as well opened straight away with this song without the buildup to it — the dreamy visuals and lilting music with the opening credits would have still charmed us like in any other film. But then, you could also light a bonfire on a hot and humid summer day too. It is the chilly coldness of winter around it that makes the warmth of the fire worth anything. 

‘Cherathukal’ becomes a beautiful dream on film only because we see the thorns of reality adorning it before the song, uniting us with the depths of this family’s heart, preparing us on our way to watching them come in harmony with each other again.

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