For a non-Malayali wanting to watch a Malayalam film, Bangalore days would probably top the list. Ask a Mallu – and it may not even feature in the top 10. In the lockdown, with little left to do than experiment with content on the multitude of OTT platforms, I decided to break this mold and give a shot to a critically acclaimed Malayalam film – Kumbalangi Nights.
No offense to Bangalore Days – it is and will continue to be my absolute favorite, go-to movie! While in Bangalore days, you had 3 siblings migrating from small villages of Kerala to the urban, suave Bangalore and finding adventure and happiness, Kumbalangi Nights promptly takes you back to the interiors of Kerala. In this sense of the background; thus, this film is different from Bangalore Days as night to day (pun intended!)
The setting is locale as a locale can be, without much fuss over the cinematography, just letting the scenic beauty of Kerala takeover.
Picture the water surrounded by the lush green trees, the longboats and the wooden houses erected close to the riverbank, and the lazy, hazy lifestyle that the locals want to escape from, but a tired Mumbaikar would pay to live, and there’s Kumbalangi for you. And now, picture the moon calmly beaming down on the water and the gentle ripples that appear on the surface as the boat, standing still, rocks a bit by the weight of the lovemaking, and Kumbalangi Nights would come alive to you.
Getting back to the plot – and here again, I draw a comparison with Bangalore Days – this movie is also about siblings and their bittersweet relationships with each other. In Bangalore days, they were cousins sharing an unshakable bond despite living apart from each other. Here it is, four brothers occupying a dilapidated house which they call their home, constantly bickering and fighting with each other.
We quickly find out that they are not real brothers in the sense that the respective parents of the older duo (Saji and Bonny) had eloped and given birth to the remaining two brothers (Bobby and Franky). Yes, it is a bit confusing! There is no sibling rivalry, just petty fights, criticisms, grievances on the lost family bliss after the father passed away and the mother left them for a religious seminary. It is only when Bobby falls in love with a petite neighbourhood girl called Baby that the differences melt away, and they stand up as a family.
Baby’s family, on the contrary, is the ‘socially accepted’ ideal family. At the head is Baby’s brother in law Shammi who earns enough for the family through a respectable profession and binds the other female members (wife, mother, and sister in law) in honour and propriety. His ideas of protecting women from harmful influences are sickeningly rigid, and yet, nothing of what he believes and do to fulfil his ‘duty’ is surprising when it comes to a majority of families in India.
Obviously, he disapproves of Baby’s romantic entanglement with Bobby and his dysfunctional family of fishermen. More so after Saji’s friend’s widowed wife also moves in with them with a baby.
In many ways, this film breaks the idea of a happy, functional family of Fathers and sons and wives and daughters with one earning man at the helm of affairs. For one, even though Saji technically becomes the head of the family – there is no real hierarchy that exists in the brothers. Love exists in a raw, unadulterated form between them that finds expression when the family faces trying times.
Secondly, the film also challenges the lens through which society views a relationship between a man and a woman. It, in fact, demonstrates – with the relations, the brothers have with the women in their lives – that the society’s obsession to define it, name it, legitimize it is needless in the overarching sentiment of love that wraps two human beings together.
Why else does Saji, the only brother who does not share a direct blood relationship with their mother, was the only one to rebuke Bobby when he complained that she was not a good mother to them? And what relation does Sathi share with Saji when he decides to take her in after her husband dies?
The film also addresses masculinity and tackles it headlong. In fact, it does so by taking the narrative through the eyes of Baby. Among everyone, she is the first rule breaker when she falls head over heels with Bobby – an unemployed man, basically ‘off limits’ when it comes to her family position.
She gauges his innocence and his genuineness even when he himself does not and stands by him – and for him against her own brother in law. It is she who makes a distinction between rights and wrongs, goods and bads, and fights for what is best for her. The hero’s fight for her only comes later.
What the hero (Bobby) primarily does is to take charge of his own life and make an attempt to change. He changes for the woman in his life and not because of her. As Isha Sengupta of The Indian Express (in one of the reviews I read about the film) points out – the onus of rehabilitating the grown men was not placed on the women, and they serve as an incentive for the men and the situation at their household to change, and not agents who bring about it. They witness. They do not execute. [The men] take charge of their lives and mend their ties, as some enter the kitchen and some find their vocation.
Also, in a lot of ways, Shammi and Saji in their ‘head of the family role’ represent two contrasting ideals of what real men ought to be, and the unfolding of their characters leaves the audience to judge. Sajji’s redemption happens when humanity in him is invoked, as much as Shammi’s downfall occurs when his will to control is met with resistance.
Yes, Kumbalangi Nights has strong feminist overtones and yet is not preachy or moralistic – we see it as an everyday story that takes place around us and picks up the pieces, read between the lines. The actors are fresh and have performed well with less makeup and lesser drama.
The film has an underlying beauty, one which comes from its location as much as from the values it chooses to permeate. I recommend it as a film for all times, for all audiences. Despite having to use English subtitles, I can assuredly say, little is lost in translation if you are able to take it in essence!