In one of the most evocative scenes in Kumbalangi Nights, Saji (a brilliant Soubin Shahir) calls out to his younger brother Franky (Mathew Thomas) to ask if the latter could take him to a doctor. “I cannot seem to cry,” he says, as an odd grin hangs on the edge of his lips. It is a particularly moving scene not just because Saji, numbed by shock and grief, had moments before witnessed and unwittingly contributed to the sudden death of his closest friend. But it also stands out because in its arrangement — Saji sitting near the window, and his brother peering from outside — it resembles a confession. In Madhu C Narayanan’s film, this confession of needing supervision to emote, to cry becomes the confession of masculinity.
This reading, though seemingly far-fetched, is not entirely contrived or unconvincing as Narayanan’s latest film (streaming on Amazon Prime), contributes significantly in a timely reshaping, of not the way men are, but of the way they are portrayed on celluloid. On the surface, Kumbalangi Nights is a moving drama of two families rife with the upheavals of their interpersonal relationships. A classic scenario of a boy and a girl (Bobby and Baby) falling in love serves as a conduit between the two families, and the turmoil that ensues conforms to the familiar narrative arc of one family disapproving of the other. But the reason for disapproval, as is soon revealed, is recognised and quantified on the currency of male hubris and not economic inequality. The two families differ on the kind, if not the type, of men they house.
The brothers, Bobby (Shane Nigam), Saji, Franky and Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi), with their largely dishevelled look, are a stark contrast to the impeccably dressed and moustache-obsessed Shammi (a terrific Fahadh Faasil). But the difference runs deeper than their superficial dissimilarities. The “little tough” Shammi, the sole patriarch of Baby’s household, does not believe “complete man” to be merely an advert tag, rather an absolute, incontestable idea that needs to be embraced. A barber by profession, he makes a living by curating the way men should look, and as he fixes his own moustache looking at the mirror, he promptly scrapes off the bindi on it: he refuses to brook the presence of female cosmetic ancillaries even on his reflection. He screams only to relish the effect it would have on his wife, and points at himself to proclaim, “Shammi, the hero”. Shammi is a caricature.
By portraying him the way he does, Narayanan not only reveals his own intent of ridiculing hypermasculinity — which hitherto, with all its flaws, has been glorified on celluloid and otherwise — but by foregrounding how even in exaggeration it hits close to home (blinded by entitlement, Shammi refuses to take no for an answer), he also seems to be coaxing us to re-identify what we understand as heroism as ludicrous attributes which, when unchecked, can result in something destructive and grotesque. In comparison, the brothers not only seem common and ordinary, their seemingly fragile masculinity instinctively appear appealing in its harmlessness.
But the film does more than just critique the common discourse or, by virtue of it, validate an alternative narrative. It investigates into the brand of masculinity it concomitantly seems to offer by its rejection, and finds a way out of both. In its exploration of the interpersonal relationships of the brothers, it puts forth a corrective kind of masculinity: one where the constant interplay between the way men behave and can behave makes way to how men can also behave, where familiarity is not used as a cover to absolve the threatening, and where the onus is not on women to rehabilitate them. And it does so even as the dominant theme of the film remains of a young girl falling in love with a wayward boy and we— looking through the prism of accepted popular narratives — are convinced that the cause of the pervasive ruin, barrenness and disorder at Saji and Bobby’s household that seep into their bond is the conspicuous absence of a woman, and her presence alone can restore a semblance of order.
Like us, the men are convinced too but — and herein lies the relevance of the film — women in Kumbalangi Nights, serve as an incentive for the men and the situation at their household to change and not agents who bring about it. They witness. They do not execute. This is keenly underlined in a tender, tragicomic scene where unsure of how to go about with the sudden changes in their lives, four grown-up men turn up to meet their mother, who had taken to spirituality after their father’s death, requesting her to stay with them for a while, entreating her to help them find a resolution only to be told, with marked affection, that they need to figure things out themselves. Trudging through personal tragedy, love and loss, they eventually do. They take charge of their lives and mend their ties, as some enter the kitchen and some find their vocation.
If a hero is what a hero does, he is also the way he is perceived: the gaze not only elevating him but also putting a shroud of impunity over his misconducts. In Kumbalangi Nights, this gaze — unquestionable in its devotion — is corrected. There is a charming and refreshing awareness in the women who look through the embellishments of masculinity and heroism without belittling or viewing them with glowing admiration. This is emphasised when, earlier in the film, Baby (Anna Ben), while talking about Bobby to her sister, stops midway in her praise of him to reveal how she really perceives him to be, “He is slightly freak and mostly naive, but I know how to bring him back.” This is a lovely and telling scene mostly because Bobby, who stomps off after his overtures are rebuffed by Baby, did feel being a man permitted him to behave a certain way. “I am a man, mind you,” he had said, seething in his rejection. Bobby could have been Shammi. But he is tempered, even slapped by someone who is seemingly infantilised by her name.
This brand of masculinity, standing on its own without holding the crutches of female approbation, is bereft of a beguiling audience. This brand of masculinity when confronted, not with a mirror — where it sees what it wants to see — but with a perceptive, critical eye, checks itself. This kind is non-threatening, almost feasible.