Kumbalangi Nights: Within the arc of family is an intense gender mapping

Frankie doesn’t want his friends to visit him at home, which he calls the worst in the neighbourhood. It doesn’t have much to do with the unfinished construction, exposed bricks, or that it stands on the shabby margins; but because it’s also a metaphorical wasteland of conflict among its residents — all men; brothers who can’t see eye to eye; and women entirely missing from this world.

At the other end is yet another home, an elegant one, peopled predominantly by women, three of them — a mother, her two daughters — but commandeered by a man — the husband of the elder daughter. All might appear to be in harmony here but there’s an incipient unease, a creepiness that hangs heavy, patriarchy lurking in ways weirder than can be imagined even as a rebellion against it is also seething.

Between these two gender-imbalanced homes and “abnormal” families lies Malayalam filmmaker Madhu C. Narayanan’s debut feature Kumbalangi Nights, which has acquired a strong fan base and cult success, even in Mumbai, in the times of the unstoppable Gully Boy.

Love and more

At one level, Kumbalangi Nights is about dysfunctional families and tortured souls, frayed tempers and flawed beings. It is also about finding love and redemption. Within the larger, familiar arc and a charming romance on the side, it has a unique way of enveloping you in the world of its troubled characters, especially the eldest brother Saji (Soubin Shahir). His drooping shoulders, the guilt of not being able to play the role of the proxy head of the family (“I took care of them as long as I could,” he says), being humiliated by his younger brother, finding an anchor in a quasi-sibling, who is also his partner in an ironing business, and eventually reconnecting with his brothers as he faces up to the storm raging within himself and lets the tears flow. His big achievement is a small one — being respectfully addressed as ‘Chetta’ (elder brother) by the wastrel brother Bobby (Shane Nigam).

However, beyond the intricacies of characters and relationships, it’s the dense gender mapping in the script that has stayed with me. The woman-less world of Saji, Boney, Bobby and Frankie took me back to Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Satte Pe Satta (1982). At one level, the comparison might seem far-fetched. After all, these Hindi films are comedies, lighter in tone and tenor than the more intense, bittersweet explorations of male-female principles in Kumbalangi Nights. Nonetheless, I could see parallels. Ashok Kumar’s hatred for women in Chalti Ka… stems from the perceived betrayal by one, and here the brothers nurse an inchoate sense of loss and longing for the mother who left them to take up the path of god. Their one meeting with her neither offers a clear closure nor hope of any togetherness or renewal.

In Satte Pe Satta, the woman plays a more “gendered” stereotype. She becomes the civilisational force, the one to tame the men and turn them from ‘animal’ to human. In Kumbalangi Nights, the idea gets more layered. Despite being on the fringes of the narrative, the women, like Bobby’s love interest Baby, are self-aware, in control in their relationships, steering it the way they want to and overthrowing the conventional expectations and bonds. In being sure of where they are headed, they also give a direction to the aimless men. When women enter the overly male frame of the film, it becomes all about disruptions and upheavals, about renegotiations of space and emotions and, eventually, about ringing in far-reaching changes.

All this is done with moments that are at once real and off the wall. A florid eccentricity runs along, especially in Fahadh Faasil’s delectable turn as Shammy, the barber with the perfect thick moustache, who is inspired by the ‘Complete Man’ in the Raymonds’ ad, has delusions about his manhood and superiority that’s rooted in a freakish control of people, especially women, around him. He is the acme of perverse and pathological masculinity that the film gets one up on. Hope and healing in Kumbalangi Nights rests on the feminine principle that the men need to have a dialogue with.

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