“Raymond, the perfect man,” says Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) as he stands in front of a bathroom mirror styling his moustache. Later he pulls out a bindi stuck on the mirror, a glitch in his reflection of perfection, and spends, what feels like an eternity, adorning himself. From the way he caresses his moustache, you know facial hair plays an important part in his idea of masculinity. This is how we are introduced to Shammi, the violent patriarch of a house in Kumbalangi he shares with his newly-wedded wife, Simmy (Grace Antony), her sister Baby (Anna Ben), and her mother.
In the backwaters of Kumbalangi, the situation is slightly different. In a small, dilapidated house live three half-brothers, Saji (Soubin Shahir), Bobby (Shane Nigam), and Frankie (Thomas Mathew), who do not get along too well. Unlike Shammi, neither Bobby nor Saji want to take responsibility for the house. Frankie, the youngest and most responsible of them, calls their house the worst in the entire neighbourhood. On their father’s remembrance day, when Saji and Bobby brawl over trivialities, Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi), their fourth brother, who has come to visit, rows his boat away.
While both the houses are dysfunctional, albeit in different senses, both have also lost their family heads and new ones have (reluctantly or by force) taken over.
Kumbalangi Nights is a beautiful glimpse into how masculinities are performed and what it does to the men performing them, as well as to their relationships. What unfolds from the very first scene is a complex interaction of masculinities – Frankie’s softness collides with the indifference of his brothers and the (almost) archetypal hegemonic masculinity of Shammi, who is feared not only by his housemates but also by the neighbourhood children, one of whom admits that Shammi “is no gentleman”. The masculinities play in contrast and in answer to each other.
Bobby idles away his time, unconcerned by responsibilities. So when Baby and her friend, Sumeesha (Riya Saira), want Bobby to work with them as their fishing guide for a day, they ask this as a favour. Bobby will not help them if they refer to it as a ‘job’.
Baby’s schoolgirl crush on Bobby materialises into a relationship with him, making me gush over their beautiful dates filmed over expansive, enthralling shots of the sea. In one of the later scenes, Bobby decides to let his masculinity get the better of him – he tries to kiss Baby in a film theatre, and after repeated failed attempts when she doesn’t allow him to, he rushes off in anger. From then onwards the story, while centring on Bobby and Baby’s relationship, unties our ideas of masculinities.
Bobby convinces Saji to meet Shammi, Baby’s brother-in-law, to talk about Bobby and Baby’s marriage. There is always a fear boiling underneath Shammi’s pretending-hard-to-be-chill demeanour which doesn’t escape even Saji and Bobby, both of whom dress and behave in a vastly different way than Shammi. When they come to meet Shammi at his barber shop, Shammi’s temper gets to them and Bobby sacrifices himself to a shave. This scene is so cleverly done: Bobby under Shammi’s razor-wielding hands, vulnerable to being cut if he utters anything inappropriate (which in this case is the marriage proposal); his masculinity dominated by that of Shammi’s. The inappropriate is said, and Shammi asks Bobby to get a job before he decides to marry Baby. Shammi’s overpowering masculinity which was until then established over the women and children, now weighs on Bobby’s shoulders.
While the first half of the film deals with introducing the internal turmoil the brothers are facing but are unable to articulate because of preconceived masculine roles, the latter part of the film unpacks what it means to be masculine. Frankie takes Saji to therapy because Saji, mourning the death of his best friend (and also his father), is unable to cry. When Saji, sitting in the therapist’s room, cries his heart out, a mild tension building throughout the film releases; not only is seeking therapy, but also men crying is normalised. Bobby, careless and ungrateful in the first half of the film, also realises the limiting bounds of masculinity through Baby, and begins a journey of responsibility. And while that might be a familiar trope – women lifting men up and encouraging them to a life of betterment – Kumbalangi Nights makes the best use of it.
While I marvel and learn from a diverse portrayal of masculinities all served on a single screen, I also smile with contentment at the way women are portrayed. Baby doesn’t mindlessly submit to Bobby’s man-child behaviour and unpredictable rude treatment, she instead helps Bobby realise his potential. In a scene where Shammi is screaming his refusal at Baby for wanting to marry Bobby, Simmy who was till then silent at Shammi’s unbearably controlling behaviour, shouts at him. Shammi goes to cocoon himself in a corner of the room and stays there until he erupts and the scene breaks into mayhem.
What I also loved about Kumbalangi Nights is the way it plays on our idea of family. It begins with a depiction of a dilapidated, lifeless house but with every new member that joins in, the house and the housemates stitch themselves together. By the end, we understand that family is not only ties of blood, but of support and love, irrespective of blood connections. Shammi’s family that looked ‘normal’ in the beginning was contrasted with Bobby’s family which was on the verge of falling apart. That is overturned in the end. The worst house in the neighbourhood became the best; it shed its lifelessness probably because the men shed theirs too.
Release date: February 7, 2019
Director: Madhu C. Narayanan
Streaming platform: Amazon Prime Video
Cover Image: The News Minute