Kumbalangi Nights is an Indian Malayalam language movie released in 2019.
“Kumbalangi Nights” is a breath of fresh air in Malayalam cinema. Malayalam cinema is full of examples of toxic masculinity both within the films and outside of it. It has in fact been a breath of fresh air in Indian cinema which more often than not is centered within the notion of sexism, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and patriarchy. Unlike the prototype of Malayalam cinema, Kumbalangi nights show male characters and masculinity with warmth, vulnerability, and kindness.
The movie revolves around four brothers, Saji, Boni, Bobi, and Franki. Bobi falls in love with Baby, an old schoolmate, and that is where the story builds. Baby’s sister, Simmi, is married to a man named, Shammi. The three brothers stay in a dilapidated house on a small island. Baby and her family live in the town, and Shammi, through marriage, becomes the patriarch of the household. He believes that “he is the only man in the house who can ‘protect’ the helpless women.”
These men are clearly flawed. In a particular scene, Bobi asks for a kiss from his partner, Baby, who refuses (as she is not married to him). As a response, he tells her “I am a man” and walks off in anger. This response is very common for women, who refuse men. These characters develop and change as the movie proceeds. The brothers don’t share the same parentage but are bound by love and support that they show for each other. Through the fights and the disagreements, the movie shows the warmth and the love they share. The vulnerability the characters show towards each other and willing to show in front of themselves is what makes the story stand out. In another scene, Shaji’s best friend killed by suicide and Shaji is responsible for his death. After this, Shaji tells Franki (the youngest) that he needs help. “Can you take me to the hospital? I am unable to cry.” We watch as Shaji breaks down the stigma around mental health and goes to a therapist. He breaks down and cries. This scene is pivotal as it shows that there is no shame in reaching out. That an older man can reach out to a younger person and ask for help. This help is rooted in getting professional help. It shatters the taboo around seeking professional help, around adult men being vulnerable. The movie though does fall when it explains Shammi’s controlling and abusive behaviour on a possible mental illness. It does good in some parts and does badly in not holding the person with mental health problems if we believe Shammi had one, accountable for their actions.
A scene that stands out is when Shammi- played by Fahadh Faasil is standing in front of the mirror admiring his moustache- the symbol of masculinity. He takes in his reflection and sees a pottu (bindi) that is stuck in the mirror. He scraps it off, and follows this up by saying “Raymond-the complete man”. This scene does a few things to set the tone of the political commentary that the movie aims to make. It is symbolic for how the Malayalam film industry has erased women and their role in the society, how Malayam cinema has scraped away at anything feminine that obstructs the image of a “complete man”, and shows what a complete man looks like. The complete man is one who has a moustache, is in control, and has the ability to do away with the feminine. Shammy’s character though has a lot of nuance in it. His toxicity comes not through overt expressions of violence, rather in how he takes the role of the patriarch. He feels entitled to make decisions for women in a female-run household. He constantly has a (discomforting) smile on his face, especially when is being emotionally manipulative. Shammi is the ‘modern man’ who believes that he can grant and take away freedom from the women in his family. Shammi is used as a contrast to the four brothers often through the film. Apart from the disheveled look of the brothers and the impeccably dressed Shami, the movie also contrasts between the stereotype of the male patriarch of the house and that of the imperfect Shaji, who is shown at his most vulnerable. The contrast runs deeper when Shammi disapproves of Bobi because of their class and their living conditions. The movie builds to show how masculinity can be toxic but can (through the story of the brothers) can become a corrective form of masculinity.
The movie is not a commentary on women, it does not focus on their story arc or character development. We know of the role of women and their story arcs only through the point of view of the men. While the story does its best to show hints of female solidarity, their right to choose, their assertiveness, it still fails in doing away with the tropes associated with women, they continue remaining the love interest or the dutiful wife for the most part. One of the only scenes where this agency comes out is when the brother’s mother, who had gone on a path of spirituality, refuses to come back home to her children. She tells them that they must find their own path without her. And they do, through love and loss, they find their path. While the movie falls short here, the aim of the movie was – a break away from the tropes of masculinity and to question the toxic ‘complete man’. The movie does not end with the men being completely reformed and a happy ‘family’. Rather it shows men transitioning, unlearning, and growing. It imagines family beyond the traditional Malayali set up of a household.