9 August 2019

Redeeming Men

My Mirror column:

The Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights, now streaming on Amazon Prime, casts a warmly human look at 
not-so-eligible men -- while undercutting the ones we usually lionise.

Soubin Shahir, Shane Nigam and Sreenath Bhasi as brothers in Kumbalangi Nights
There's a scene midway through Kumbalangi Nights when an abashed son-in-law apologizes if he's put his mother-in-law to too much trouble by mentioning that he hasn't eaten pooris for a while. Then, still smiling under his perfectly trimmed moustache, Shammy pulls the protesting old lady to sit down in the chair next to him, calling out to his wife to serve her mother a poori. In a few minutes, the three women of the family are sitting down with him at the dining table. “In future, we should all eat together like this,” declares Shammy expansively.

In almost any other Indian film, such a scene would be a picture of domestic bliss. An educated, modern Indian family man, fondly requesting a treat from his new mother-in-law, and making sure that he eats his dinner not before but alongside the “three hapless women” he has taken charge of by marriage. But in Madhu C. Narayanan's directorial debut, we see the layers that would ordinarily be covered over. When Shammy – played masterfully by popular Malayalam star Fahadh Faasil – calls out for the poori, the film cuts to his wife and sister-in-law in the kitchen, making us note who is actually doing the cooking. We see the two women turn to each other, as they do often in the film, their eye movements and gestures an often silent commentary on the tension that actually animates life with Shammy.

Syam Pushkaran's script offers clues to Shammy's dangerousness right from the time we are introduced to him. He is the new occupant who has the neighbourhood children afraid of playing football near his house; the new husband who makes his wife nervous; the young man whose response to an older man's cooking for him is to mock him for time spent in the kitchen. Pushkaran's dialogue is brilliantly subtle, every unpleasant remark delivered with a smile, twisting the knife even he seems to be passing the butter. And so perfect is Faasil's delivery of it that it seems utterly believable when the film's simpler, more transparent characters take his statements at face value. In one superb scene, Bobby and his brother Saji come to Shammy's barber shop to ask for his sister-in-law Baby's hand in marriage. Shammy mocks the proposal with such finesse that Saji can't even see what's hit him. But we do.

“Cheta, this Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” says Shammy, which Saji takes as suggesting that anyone is capable of anything: his unemployed brother Bobby may yet get a job that makes him husband-material. But in fact it is proof only of Shammy's disdain. And that disdain extends beyond the poor Christian family of fishermen that thinks it is his equal; it extends to the law that allows women the freedom to decide their own fates: “Mr. Saji, you know, a girl can marry any scoundrel she wants. Unfortunately that's the law of the land.”

When the film begins, we see Bobby and Saji through the disappointed eyes of their youngest brother Franky, who has returned from school just in time for their father's death anniversary. But even as the schoolboy cooks a fish curry and waits for their fourth brother, Bony, to get home and eat together, Bobby and Saji have begun their usual brawl. It is a household of men – unkempt, unemployed and entirely unmotivated to any activities beyond drinking and fighting.

But by pitting Shammy's outward respectability, his perfect clean-cut exterior, against the dishevelled, largely unemployed bunch of layabouts that make up this family, Kumbalangi Nights achieves something quite remarkable. It shows us that men can redeem themselves, even those who seem beyond that hope. Sometimes the agents of that redemption are women, the promise of love and family, the softening -- if also demanding -- influence of children. But sometimes – as the remarkable arc with Saji and the therapist suggests -- the agent of redemption can be grief itself. Sometimes women refuse to be mothers, and men learn take care of each other.

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