Kumbalangi Nights is set in an island at the margins, a dump yard of a place at the margins, where nothing much is happening. In the island, fishing which used to be the primary and only form of livelihood has now become unfashionable. The only commercial proposition seems to be tourism, that too only of foreign visitors, for whom 'local' life and livelihood is staged, offering many enterprising islanders a source of income. In this stagnant pool, life seems to go round and round, people are born, they grow, marry, live and die, every day is like any other day with its regular toll of booze and brawls. Here, most of the youth, especially men, are either drifters or spongers, they have nothing much to look up, around or forward to. Space and time seem to stand still here.
Like most newgen films, the present and its surges and plunges are all that is there. Never does the question of how it all came to be suggested
In the middle of this cesspool is an all-male family of four brothers with different demeanour and temperaments – a sponger who lives from the sweat of others, a drifter who cares for nothing, a mute one with a musical bent, and lastly, a talented student who is an aspiring footballer. With nothing in common between them, they lead parallel lives; any argument can readily turn into a drunken and senseless brawl. On the other side is a family consisting of three women: a mother and two daughters. The film begins with an 'alien' man entering that female kingdom: it is Shammi, the stylish barber, who marries the elder sister. The film is about this all-male family eventually turning into a jovial joint family with all the three hitherto drifting adult brothers finding their pair one way or other, and the female-family ousting the alien once and for all. So what does this family- formation-cum-reunion mean for the Nights in the title? Are they finally going to wake up to normal vocations and routine, and daylight lives? The indications are all too loud and clear: in the last scene, we see the two brothers out in their boats with their fishing nets, venturing merrily into the placid waters. Was all the turbulence and tension we were witness to till then culminating into a blissfully happy life thereafter? For, there is nothing to complicate or upset this clichéd closure, for, like most new-gen films, the present and its surges and plunges are all that is there. The question of how it all came to be – the people, space, relationships etc, or where is it all leading to – is never evoked, referred or suggested.
The reformation of the brothers that is at the core of the film is actually forced upon them by love (in the case of Bobby), chance (in the case of Bonny) or fate (in the case of Saji). Interestingly all this happens at the cost of or due to 'aliens' who intrude into the island, one woman and two men. In the case of Bonny, it is love at first sight with the foreign tourist. The other two aliens are Shammi, the well-groomed, neatly-dressed, self-obsessed husband, and Murugan, the Tamil migrant worker. They constitute two extremes to the placid life of the foursome; while Shammi is the fair-skinned, ambitious, self-appointed 'hero' figure, Murugan is the subaltern, eternal outsider figure of Kerala and Malayalam cinema, the Tamilian manual labourer. While the self-absorbed Shammi reveals his psychotic face and is hounded out, the selfless Murugan sacrifices himself for Saji; he falls to death while trying to save his Malayalee master. The latter, in recompense and to assuage his guilt, readily brings Murugan's wife to his home to live with him. No wonder, like in larger Kerala, in the scheme of things in the island too, the migrant labourer is the most expendable item and there are no questions asked about the cause or events leading to his death ('They have no complaints, so you are free' says the police, very casually) or any formal hurdles in 'adopting' the dead man's wife to live in the house of the very same man who exploited her husband all along and caused his death. Significantly the accident happens a few moments after Murugan confides in Saji about his decision to break free from him and to move to the town. So, in the island, the life of the brothers look fragile, but that of the migrant is brittle.
True to the spirit of the much-celebrated 'newgen' cinema, Kumbalangi Nights' charm lies in its tremulous pace: it breezily unfolds from moment to moment, incident to incident and dialogue to dialogue in the racy storytelling style of Shyam Pushkaran, the scenarist. The situations, acting, and conversations have a certain sprightly lightness to them, moulded through a perpetually tentative pace that is crafted through fluid camera movements and scenes held together more through an exchange of glances, evocative silences, tense human presences, and quick retorts, mumbles and half sentences as dialogues. Visually, the watery expanse provides the ideal setting as well as the convenient cutaways and spectacular transitions. Packed with mundane, little incidents, interactions, and altercations that are peppered with humour and music, the viewer is literally carried away to the very end by the lilting 'naturalism' of the film. Except for the typical filmy encounter between the heroes and the villain at the end, one never feels like one is watching a movie. But this naturalism and momentariness is all. Once you are out of the theatre, nothing lingers in you, but for some vague contours of certain scenes and scraps of dialogue. Here are two such samples: one is the scene where Saji, having lost his mental moorings, meets with the psychiatrist and breaks down in front of him and recounts his early life. Another one moment is when Shammi's hitherto submissive wife, gathering all her will, forbids her fuming husband from improperly addressing her younger sister. But beyond that, when one wakes up from the Kumbalangi night and into the daylight of reality, there is nothing to hold on to or fall back upon. Each character, taken singly, are rounded and credible, but together, they do not convey anything socially or emotionally; for, nothing binds these characters, incidents, and narrative twists and turns together to connect us with any larger narrative about the people and politics, or space and time. In its compulsion to entertain and thrill without a pause, the narrative ends up incorporating in its stride all the clichés of the oldgen films – that of saving the damsel in distress, hero winning the heroine's heart and body, the climactic trouncing of the villain, and the happy reunion of the family in the end – all churning up a syrupy narrative that leaves the viewers at peace with themselves and the world. The bad is vanquished by the good, the woman is brought under manly wings, and the island – God's Own Country – is restored to its original order. So, what we have here is the very same turbid oldgen brew in shining newgen bottles, with all the ingredients intact.