If we were still in the days of video libraries, this is how you'd find the classiest entertainers. Head to the Malayalam section. Look for films whose titles begin with the name of a place, followed by a plural noun. You're set. Bangalore Days. Angamaly Diaries. And now, first-timer Madhu C Narayanan's Kumbalangi Nights, which unfolds in an islet in the outskirts of Kochi. These films are distinguished by an organic sensibility that seeps into every aspect of the filmmaking, right down to the title font. The opening credits of Kumbalangi Nights feature a "Title Font Design" card, and you see how important this is — this gradation of colour from yellow through green to blue — in capturing the film's mood and tone and feel. These "new gen" films are filled with ensemble casts, and there's something heart-warmingly democratic about how everyone comes together. You have stars playing characters. You have character actors in star-making turns. There are established performers whose names you know. There are newcomers who are so good, you want to know what their names are. (Yes, Anna Ben, I am talking about you.)
One of the known faces in Kumbalangi Nights is Soubin Shahir, who plays Saji and is one of the country's finest actors today. I'm not going to bore you with a list of great acting moments. I'll leave you with just one, the scene after a tragedy where Saji is cautioned by a cop (Dileesh Pothan, in a blink/miss appearance indicative of how the "new gen" directors, too, are back-slappingly democratic about each other's films). It would have been easier for Saji to weep for the life lost, or clutch the inspector's hands in gratitude for being let off with a warning. What Soubin does (and these choices may have come from the filmmakers as well) is more difficult. He shows you someone who's still processing the tragedy that just occurred, still trying to come to terms with it. You know the phrase "in a daze"? This look is it.
Saji lives with his siblings — the aimless Bobby (Shane Nigam), the school-going Frankie (Mathew Thomas) – and they're practically orphans. Their father is dead. Their mother has left them to serve God. (The small scene where she meets her sons is devastating in what it leaves unsaid.) It's easier to come to terms with someone who died than with someone who's alive but has abandoned you. Hence the yearning on Frankie's face as he gazes at the small shrine at home, with a picture of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Nothing is "accidental" in this intricately constructed film. This seemingly casual shot — it lasts but a few seconds — finds an echo, a crescendo, when Saji brings home a mother with a baby. The costuming in this scene, the beatific lighting by cinematographer Shyju Khalid, and Frankie's open-faced joy leave us in little doubt that, for the boy, the shrine has come to life.
But for now, Saji is the "mother" of the house. He cooks. He cares. He is the sensitive one. When Bobby complains about their mother, Saji says she hasn't had an easy life. The line is beautiful: "She always had the odour of pain balm." Saji's "feminine" (in a good way) nature is emphasised by the fact that he doesn't have a female love interest. He doesn't seem to be interested in any woman. There's no back story about The One That Got Away. His only "partner" (Ramesh Thilak) is a platonic one, with whom he runs a street-side ironing business. I'm not suggesting Saji is emasculated or gay — just that he doesn't do the aggressively macho things (like falling in love, or lust) that define men in our mainstream movies.
If Saji is the de facto "matriarch" of his household, Shammi is the de facto "patriarch" of his. Saji's house is filled with men. Shammi's is filled with women: wife Simi (Grace Antony), her sister Baby (Anna Ben), and their mother (Ambika Rao)
Shammi (Fahadh Faasil), though, is that aggressively macho male, a contrast to Saji in every possible way. If Saji is the de facto "matriarch" of his household, Shammi is the de facto "patriarch" of his. Saji's house is filled with men. Shammi's is filled with women: wife Simi (Grace Antony), her sister Baby (Anna Ben), and their mother (Ambika Rao). If Saji's house is situated in an area where garbage and stray animals are dumped, Shammi's upper-class-ness is underlined by the fact that the family runs a homestay inhabited by foreign tourists. And Shammi is anything but "sensitive". He's the personification of the toxic male. In his first scene, we see him in his bathroom, shaping his thick, ultra-masculine moustache and, with the same blade, scraping off a bindi stuck on the mirror. He doesn't want even a trace of "femaleness" to interfere with his idea of a "complete man". (He actually calls himself that.) And unlike Saji, he's pathologically neat. His shirt is tucked in just so. The smile on his face is frozen just so. He cannot bear to lose control. He cannot tolerate the kind of mess Saji's household is so used to, and this includes Baby falling for Bobby. This development disturbs his idea of "neatness", of how things should be just so.
The writer is Syam Pushkaran, who appears to be fascinated with cinematic codings of masculinity. His first solo outing was the marvellous Maheshinte Prathikaram, which took the time-honoured "macho" trope of revenge and turned it on its head. (The title translates to "Mahesh's Revenge".) The great joke of the film is how it completely subverts our expectations of a "revenge movie" and, in the process, strikes a blow at the heart of the hero-centric masala movie. Mahesh is the gentlest of men, and yet, owing to the culture of masculinity in patriarchal societies, it doesn't take much to incite primal passions that leave even someone like him baying for blood. In a typical masala movie with such a setup, the second half would simmer with the prospect of the showdown between good and evil. But here, the "villain" simply vanishes. The hero is left nursing his wounded pride and the realisation that life goes on. The revenge promised in the title is almost an afterthought.
Kumbalangi Nights is Syam's second solo screenwriting effort. (In the midst of these two films, he co-wrote the exquisite Mayanadhi, with long-time collaborator Dileesh Nair. A line from that film is used for a big laugh here.) This isn't as organic a work as Maheshinte Prathikaram, and it doesn't have a single stretch as breathtaking as the cascading series of events that lead to the interval point in the earlier film. That film… flowed. (I can't think of another word.) It was phenomenally one of a piece. This one careens between the languidness of the Frankie scenes and the (intentional) cartoonishness of the scenes with Shammi. These tone shifts are, at times, jarring — and some of the effects (like the series of fishing metaphors that culminates in the unexpected deployment of a fishing net in the climax) look a little too "constructed", too deliberate. And some parts, like the tragedy at the film's heart, are shockingly underexplored. (It almost seems to be brushed aside.)
There's more of a crowd-pleasing feel in Kumbalangi Nights — which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the scenes like the one where a foreign tourist (a vaguely sketched character played by Jasmine Metivier) explains the concept of dating to a rapt Frankie seem to belong in a less-imaginative movie. But these problems (none of which are big enough to derail the film) arise from Kumbalangi Nights being a far more ambitious effort than Maheshinte Prathikaram, which was the story of one man's growth. Here, Syam Pushkaran has the decidedly more complex task of tracing the growth of many men (which inevitably results in more generic, less detailed arcs). From a dismissive "outsider" to the family, Frankie, by the end, becomes an insider, helping his brothers — and in the process, transforming from boy to man. From a sulking drifter, Bobby becomes a responsible adult, and even his attitude towards love changes. Earlier he wonders if you have to buy the whole tea shop just for a cup of tea. Later, he "grows" enough to realise Baby may deserve someone better than him. Saji goes from sponging off others to providing for those in need. Even Simi, in her own small way, goes from timid housewife to someone with a voice (though, admittedly, this is not a film that focuses on its women).
Only Shammi doesn't change. He isn't so much a person as a concept. He's the distillation of the worst aspects of patriarchy/masculinity, and so he has to be vanquished, removed from the root rather than be allowed to change. And it is Shammi who results in the film's most problematic stretches — not in terms of content but tone. Take the superb early scene where Shammi snubs Simi's uncle, whose claim to fame is that he is a good cook. It's a scene that fits – because cooking, after all, is a "feminine" pursuit in the eyes of a man like Shammi, and he is likely to be dismissive about a man who pursues it. But the scenes that treat Shammi as a concept rather than a character (i.e. "masculinity" rather than a man) are harder to take. The deliberately absurd ending (with horror-movie music and what appears to be a nod to The Shining) is all concept, the idea of toxic masculinity running amuck. The premise is great: a man who is perfect from the outside is rotten inside (and conversely, Saji, who looks like a loser, has a heart of gold). But it feels overblown. I must admit, though, that Shammi is one of Fahadh Faasil's most memorable (and riskiest) creations. It couldn't have been easy playing someone so outlandish, and the whole performance is a tightrope walk between portraying a concept and a character, playing a man who is a joke without reducing the man himself to a joke.
Only Shammi doesn't change. He isn't so much a person as a concept. He's the distillation of the worst aspects of patriarchy/masculinity, and so he has to be vanquished, removed from the root rather than be allowed to change. And it is Shammi who results in the film's most problematic stretches — not in terms of content but tone
Kumbalangi Nights exists at a very high level of achievement, so these quibbles are more about my own greed that it could have been a flat-out masterpiece instead of the very good film that it is. And these quibbles are easily explained away. If the climax appears tonally off, it's also because the screenplay structure accommodates only two moments of high drama: at the end of the first half (where a man dies) and at the end of the second half (where toxic masculinity dies). You may wonder how Saji and Bobby call a halt to their animosity so suddenly. (Their fighting involves squeezing each other's balls. Even such a throwaway scene is situated around the spheres of manhood.) But you stop thinking about it soon. For later, these very different-natured brothers are twinned in an extraordinary scene. The "feminine" Saji sheds a pool of tears on a psychiatrist's chest. The more conventionally "male" Bobby sheds a single tear, while talking to Baby. The brothers feel cosmically connected — their differences have disappeared. This is a moment that's possible only in cinema, only through the magic of editing.
The director and screenwriter handle so many small things so well. The western toilet in Saji's house is planted in the script long before it becomes the reason for someone to move in. (Otherwise, we might have wondered about this development, which would have become too convenient.) I loved how the mute Bonny's (Sreenath Bhasi) connection to the family is gradually fleshed out, or how a man who's not conventionally good-looking dons a pair of sunglasses and becomes a Greek god to his girlfriend. This "new gen" Malayalam cinema is peerless among Indian mainstream cinema in portraying the small moment: the visual of a cigarette stubbed out in an eggshell (which is so evocative of the squalor that Frankie resents so much), or the proposal on a bended knee that follows a tantrum, or the memory of a letter that brings a smile to both writer and reader.
But even within the generic nature of these moments (the latter two belong to Bobby), the film's very specific design is never in doubt. When Baby refuses his kiss in a cinema hall, Bobby storms away, yelling, "I AM A MAN!" (That even someone so mild-mannered feels so entitled is scary.) I laughed when Bobby squirms when Saji asks him for a "price" for a favour (Shane Nigam is brilliant in this scene, but then this is a film where the entire cast sings as one) — but scratch the comedy on the surface and you find a small commentary about how "men" don't always find it easy to be emotional. The other overarching conceit in Kumbalangi Nights is the definition of family. From the outside, we are more likely to want to associate with Shammi's very "decent" family, but appearances are so deceptive. It's the household with the eggshell ashtray that expands our idea of family. It's not necessarily whom you are born with, or to. It's also those who need you, those you open your doors to. This open-door policy is visualised literally — Saji's house has no door. It doesn't need one. This is, in its own way, a kind of patriarchy. It's always women who seek shelter, which the men provide. But Kumbalangi Nights is so generous a film that I chose not to dwell on this aspect. Family isn't about "men" or "women". It's about people.