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A small film with lots to say about the world

By Sreehari Nair
March 06, 2019 09:48 IST
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'Kumbalangi Nights is a movie that respects women, but most importantly, it's a movie that loves them,' says Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Anna Ben and Shane Nigam in Kumbalangi Nights. Kumbalangi Nights is an all-out defence of Cultural Impurity, and it's a silent revolt against politicians, worldwide, who talk about directing their nations back to some mythical state of 'past purity.'

One way to empty Kumbalangi Nights of its magic is to read it plainly as a story of 'four brothers.' That's about as plain as saying that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story of the Buendía family.

There's always more happening beneath the surface of great works, and therein lie clues to their greatness.

Among the four brothers in Madhu C Narayanan's movie are one set of full brothers, four sets of half-brothers, and two brothers who don't share a common parent.

Napoleon siblings -- Saji, Bonny, Bobby and Franky -- are brothers less by biology and more by a quirk of fate: Into their doorless home one night, Saji's father had brought Bonny's mother, and their union, in time, produced Bobby and Franky.

The terms 'Mother' and 'Father' have thus become as meaningless and formless to these four men as the brotherhood they share -- and this, perhaps, explains why their parents have surrendered to things more manageable: The father has surrendered to death, and the mother, to God.

Now, an ordinary screenwriter would have announced this complicated family situation formally, using a voiceover, and may then have, exploited it to mine out a few running gags.


IMAGE: Sreenath Bhasi, Shane Nigam and Soubin Shahir in Kumbalangi Nights.

But Syam Pushkaran is no ordinary screenwriter. In fact, there's no screenwriter in India right now who is as committed to telling a story using small accretions and through characters exchanging little nothings. (Tolstoy would drop his Tolstoyean diction even into the mind of a horse; a Pushkaran character, though, can never possess a vocabulary that exceeds the range of her life experience).

I can think of no other Indian screenwriter who can make clear the dynamics between two characters, just through the nicknames they refer to each other by (Bobby's best friend calls him Gopi -- and isn't such a distortion of name something we inflict upon people we are closest to?).

There's no Indian screenwriter more committed to ironing out exposition (it's the back of Franky's football team jersey that gives away his identity), and when, in one of Kumbalangi Nights's many brilliant stretches, Syam Pushkaran subtly lets slip the complex structure of the Napoleon family, everything we saw before that stretch, starts to acquire new dimensions.

IMAGE: Fahadh Faasil in Kumbalangi Nights. The philosophy behind Fahadh's character, the plot-device that's Shammi is: Every inflexible patriarch is a psychopath waiting for the right provocation.

We have seen Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam) tussle on the floor and have seen them untangle to the wrestling count of 1-2-3.

That image keeps returning to us after the Family Tree has been laid bare and it lets us surmise: These are grown up men, responding, still, to the rituals of childhood.

For how else can they disregard the bitter awarenesses that adult life has thrust upon them?

We wonder about the uncomfortable silences and the insults traded -- if they were just good-natured brotherly jibing, or, if they were also expressions of deep-seated pain.

The Napoleon household, with its many crisscrosses and complications, represents Cultural Impurity, but Syam Pushkaran is too original a thinker to propose that this is a situation crying out for improvement.

In the course of the movie, more people become part of the Napoleon household, more, to go with the men and the cats they're petting, and Kumbalangi Nights then becomes an all-out defence of Cultural Impurity.

The movie is on the side of welcoming dirt than on the side of cleansing, and it's a silent revolt against politicians, worldwide, who talk about directing their nations back to some mythical state of 'past purity.'

IMAGE: Anna Ben makes her debut in Kumbalangi Nights.

This is a movie which understands that when people talk about cultural purity, other people die (Hitler was someone who advocated cultural purity).

Cultural Impurity is the basis of the modern State. And in this film, it forms the basis of the modern family whose story Syam and his team are trying to narrate.

This is the politics of Kumbalangi Nights: A perceptive one, because, in a sense, it anticipates a future Kerala where children may be born out of the pairing of Malayalis and Bengalis (which Bengalis now occupy small pockets the state) -- and the film suggests that the idea of 'family' and the idea of 'society' will both be better for such a possibility.

It's the freeness and the lack of authority inside the Napoleon household, made possible by its Cultural Impurity, that's missing in the Shammi Household -- previously, a household of all women, but now, laid siege to, by Fahadh Faasil as Shammi.

Shammi is everything the Napoleon Brothers are not; but the result of Shammi's natural tidiness is 'rigidity' and Fahadh Faasil portrays this rigidity by 'acting from his neck up.'

(To enjoy the character, you may have to constantly remind yourself that Shammi is, in essence, 'Fahadh playing Shammi').

When Bobby Napoleon falls for Shammi's sister-in-law Baby Mol (Anna Ben), and when an alliance is sought between the two lovers, and, by extension, between the two mismatched households, the philosophy behind the plot-device that's Shammi gets revealed to us: Every inflexible patriarch is a psychopath waiting for the right provocation.

Those who have been keenly following the principal members of this Kumbalangi Nights team might discern a correspondence between them and the Napoleon Brothers -- and how it was 'disgust for another kind of rigidity' that had once brought this team together.

IMAGE: Directed By Madhu C Narayanan and produced By Nazriya Nazim, Dileesh Pothan, Syam Pushkaran. The principal members of the Kumbalangi Nights team are products of Aashiq Abu's anger and frustration with the Malayalam film industry's set ways of making movies.

Madhu C Narayanan, Syam Pushkaran, Dileesh Pothan (who has co-produced this one), Editor Saiju Sreedharan, Co-Director Roy, have all blossomed under Aashiq Abu's aegis: They are products of that man's anger and frustration with the Malayalam film industry's set ways of making movies.

If this decade is Malayalam Cinema's to take pride in, then nobody warrants more credit for it than Aashiq Abu.

It was Abu who had motivated these brats to explore new microcosms. And while only a few works from their initial phase actually pass muster, you can now see that they were, even then, trying to liberate Malayalam Cinema from its assembly-line approach to making films.

So imagine Aashiq Abu at the helm and this twinkly-eyed gang, right behind him: It was 'Castro and his Merry Band' all over again. Like those Cuban revolutionaries, in the hills, the Abu Army was creating the revolution and learning from it.

And it all came together, eventually, in Dileesh Pothan's Maheshinte Prathikaram: A work of art which suggested that the artist had arrived at some transcendence when interacting with the material; that was a film in which the truth of the material was conveyed to the artist by the style of its making.

And Maheshinte Prathikaram must surely have revised the screenwriting manual for Syam Pushkaran.

Today, if his movies feel 'alive,' it's because they reflect the joy of making movies.

A Syam Pushkaran screenplay isn't just a thing on the page, anymore; it's, as much, a thing conjured up from the air.

Pushkaran is careful that the Emotional Logic of every scene is set just right, careful about letting the geography of a scene inform character interactions, and yet, his characters have absolute free will (Free Will: That luxury that no character in Gully Boy was granted).

Everyone on the set of a Syam Pushkaran-scripted movie, the actors not in the least, contribute to every shot. To write like Syam Pushkaran, one may have to learn how to brainstorm like Syam Pushkaran: How to harness creative energies like he does.

Madhu C Narayanan may be coming out of this great tradition, but he's very much his own person. His frames may not be as combustible as Mayaanadhi's nor do they jangle with possibilities, in the way that the frames in Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum did.

Narayanan, however, has a feeling for beauty that's close to a painter's.

His days look crayon-enhanced without ever seeming artificial; and teaming up with Cinematographer Shyju Khalid, he captures the nights, complete with such dark details, as the final exertion of fishes in a fishing net.

Narayanan's feeling for beauty can be traced in how, in a scene, he almost *photographs rhythm* -- with the music from Bobby's speaker jazzing up the inanimate objects around it.

The beauty is in those passing shots of Porn CDs that have done their work, and school trophies that have shed their egos and accepted cobwebs.

IMAGE: The women in Kumbalangi Nights have almost no despair. The men aren't moving forward, but the women are. The men want to wield power, but the women have speed. The men have manifestos, while the women have ideas.

Madhu C Narayanan's feeling for beauty, however, comes shining through, most of all, in the faces that populate his first movie. There's a sense of wholesomeness about every face, here: A distinct quality to each face; as if, each deserved its separate place on Rushmore.

All the cooking and cleaning seems to have injected a sense of feminine order into young Franky's face. He fills in for the mother who has left... he almost does.

Soubin Shahir as Saji essays a trainwreck in all its blazing glory (it's a performance of many, unpredictable cadences), and in a scene, where he gets slapped by a police offer, his face has the glow of someone experiencing a moment of rebirth. "I had that coming. Thank You!" says Saji's face, as he draws in the slap.

Sreenath Bhasi's Bonny, the mute brother, is the most sorted-out character in the film and at a certain point Bonny stages one of cinema's great shaggy-dog rebellions, when he mimes the act of ripping out his crotch-hair and handing it to Bobby.

The actors are all stylised inside the precinct of doing regular, everyday things: They are taking common experience, and giving it rumble.

Nobody embodies this formula better than Shane Nigam, who, as Bobby, accepts the imaginary crotch hair before realising what he had just accepted with grace.

One of India's most skillful young actors, Nigam somehow seems to have more time than most actors; he's more exploratory, and, particularly daring are some of his choices here -- such as eyeing a fish in the middle of a hug; or breaking into a smile while describing a scene of death.

IMAGE: Anna Ben as Babymol in Kumbalangi Nights.

Nigam's is the most affectionately written character -- and that bit of tentativeness in the actor, coupled with Baby Mol's pursuit of him, makes him oddly glamorous.

On his first day at a fishery, when an entire batch of ladies, with their faces covered and with only their eyes visible, turns around to look at Bobby, it's as though, women, all over the world, had temporarily stopped working, to catch a glimpse of this vulnerable kid who could pull back at the slightest of attention.

Bobby, however, throws his fishing net only for Baby Mol (in a moment of cinematic metaphor that comes on too strong, it's implied that she gets caught in his net), and Anna Ben who plays Baby Mol has a charged presence: She commands attention with ease.

A highly physical actress, there's something about the way Anna Ben uses her hip -- often thrusting it out as she talks. Her hip is her preferred weapon: she uses it to for cuteness sake, and to dispel moments of awkwardness.

The women in Kumbalangi Nights are, as a general rule, a lot less complicated than the men, and they have almost no despair.

Jasmine Metivier, who plays a foreign tourist, is tossed out of a home-stay, but she is not one to waste time sulking and is soon shown scanning Bonny's home while munching on a Kerala-Style Rosette Cookie.

The women cope with situation better.

Kumbalangi Nights isn't about toxic masculinity (which has become a buzz phrase of our times), as much as it's about men who aren't moving forward, and women who are.

The men want to wield power, but the women have speed.

The men have manifestos, while the women have ideas.

This is a movie that respects women, but most importantly, it's a movie that loves them. A photograph of Mother Mary in Saji's house looks, eerily, like one of the female characters, who, finally, saves his life; and the lingering background score is the hum from a mother's lullaby, amplified.

Part of the beauty of the faces in Kumbalangi Nights is owed to how fluid their characterisations are: They all seem to be reacting to situations than merely acting out the rituals of a bound script.

The complete absence of fluidity is what makes Fahadh Faasil's Shammi the only graceless character in the film.

To think of it, Shammi isn't a conventional villain. He is, in truth, a subversive look at the conventional damsel-protecting hero: The movie wants us to see what such a hero might be doing behind closed bathroom doors.

Also, photographed in certain scenes as a Floating Head and in certain other scenes as the Stone-faced Doofus taking in news of his emasculation, there emerges a goosey, comic side to the character.

The only issue with turning Shammi into a straight antagonist who 'meets with a definite end' is that it robs him of the danger he had built up to that point.

As a character, Shammi is mounted impressionistically. His creepiness is communicated to us through the reactions he gets out of the wonderful women who surround him; through faint touches such as his crowning of himself as the family head during a dinner setting; and most interestingly, in a terrific scene where we don't see him, but see clearly the destruction he has caused (a child's desecrated football).

The problem with putting down someone this watchfully embroidered, so that he transforms into someone easily detestable, is that it renders him as too much of a romantic concept.

I would have loved it if Shammi's wife and his mother-in-law had continued to live with him while only getting a whiff of his psychopathic nature. Shammi, then, would have lurked around even after the movie was over; and it would have brought into sharp focus the dangerous reality he represents.

Syam Pushkaran and Madhu C Narayanan know they've dropped the ball slightly; but they also know that even with the minor niggle, they have done a great deal to complicate viewers's responses.

It must be a first for popular Indian cinema that a movie has pointed us in the direction of how the worst aspects of patriarchy are often born out of the belief that it's all for the good of women.

What's not discussed when we discuss patriarchy is how many Indian women prefer 'their man' to be the dominant force in a household: How many strong, talented women willingly give up their own personality, and own vision, to become captives of hairy brutes.

Kumbalangi Nights's finest achievement may be that it prods us to look closely at this mentality.

It isn't everyday that a mainstream Indian film nudges its audience to examine the domestic narrative that leads some women to welcome a slavish life: The narrative being that the growth of women is intricately connected to how well the 'masculine grandeur' is preserved.

When Shammi smilingly chides his wife for being too scared of him, he's, in point of fact, celebrating his own authority.

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Sreehari Nair