Ms Representation: Making light of masculinity
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the Malayalam film, Kumbalangi Nights
Kumbalangi Nights, written by Syam Pushkaran (who wrote the superb Maheshinte Prathikaram, which also starred Fahadh Faasil), is an interesting film that is layered with meaningful, accessible imagery and is ultimately about the people who make and break homes. The film assembles a motley crew of extremely talented artistes like Soubin Shahir (terrific in Sudani from Nigeria last year) who plays the very complex Saji with the ease of a veteran, Shane Nigam (as Bobby), Sreenath Bhasi (as Boney), and Mathew Thomas (as Franky) as brothers. The lovely Ramesh Thilak also comes in as the Tamil-speaking Murugan in a brief, but very pivotal role, a fantastic Anna Ben (Babymol), a very effective Grace Antony (Simi) and Jasmine Metivier (Nylah). The scene stealer here however is Fahadh’s Shammy – his screen time is perhaps the smallest compared to all of the other men in the film, but he is extremely effective in channelling his inner creep.
There are two camps in this film. The camp at a fishing hamlet has the four brothers and no women around. In one particularly well-written scene, the brothers go to meet the mother figure in their lives, who has embraced the path of God. They want her to come and live with them for just a little while, she turns them down and says, "I will pray for you." She is being true to her path but this coldness from a maternal figure, who is never written in this manner for our screens, is disquieting and very real.
And there’s Babymol, her sister Simi and their widowed mother, three women who haven’t had a man around, and seem to have been doing rather fine, until Shammy marries Simi. The sequence that leads to Shammy usurping a seat at the head of the table, while the women sit around him and eat is funny. Shammy is extremely well turned out and grooms his moustache impeccably. One cannot miss the symbolism, between the moustache and his need to be the paternalistic protector of family and honour of course.
Between Babymol and Bobby’s love Shammy stands not firmly but slimily like a snake that has wound itself around the legs and arms of the women in the family, restricting them. He does not approve of the brothers, their family background (which is also an interesting backstory about the brothers), and their home which hasn’t even received a coat of paint.
Nylah, a tourist who is enjoying a homestay at Babymol’s house, falls for Boney and has him staying overnight. We see dear old creep, Shammy peeking into their room looking right at them while they are in bed. After nearly getting caught, he throws them out saying he won’t have a local staying with a woman alone in his house. A defiant Nylah kisses Boney in front of him before storming out and quietly moving in with the brothers. She finds their home beautiful and not incomplete.
When Murugan, who works with Saji (spoiler alert) dies tragically, the latter’s actions are thoroughly believable. He is at first stupefied, then repentant (he falls at feet of Murugan’s pregnant wife), and later asks Franky to take him to see a doctor. He slowly begins talking but eventually we see him hugging the psychiatrist and bawling. The doctor’s shirt is wet from tears. While the lack of a maternal figure wreaks havoc in the lives of these men, the presence of a self-appointed paternal figure in the women’s lives wreaks havoc in theirs.
When Murugan’s wife appears, glowing under the sun, on a boat, her head wrapped in a blue shawl and a baby in her hand, to the men’s home, the image looks almost mythical. As if Mother Mary that the men have been praying to was at last coming home with a baby in tow, having heard the cries of these men.
Both Simi and Babymol retaliate whenever Shammy tries to take complete control of their lives, especially the latter’s. They make their displeasure known to him in a non-hysterical manner. They outshine him with simple logic, he is not their boss, and this is what pushes him over the edge finally.
Kumbalangi Nights is a very interesting film and I cannot think of any other film industry in our country making a dramedy this effective today. Grappling with questions like this, the fact that it is the first big Malayalam hit this year is the icing of course.