Last one! And the film most similar to Kumbalingi Nights, even connected to the other main cast members with Soubin Shahir directing and Sreenath Bhasi doing a cameo. Plus, the theme of men growing up, this time a young boy and a young man and their father, instead of 4 brothers.
This is a very male movie, but in the best possible way. It’s not focusing on men because they are the most important people, or the only people, but because that is the story it is telling, of the awkward confusing complicated dangerous way that young boys grow up into men. And how it reverberates back through time, middle-aged men fear for young men, young men fear for teenagers, teenagers fear for adolescents and so on, each age group fully aware of the danger of the time of life just behind them.
Dulquer has an interesting role, really just a cameo. But a unique part of this men-young men-boys pattern. He is the rare young man who has survived and gotten through the dangerous years but is still able to fearlessly relate back to the younger men, willing to serve as a guide and a bridge to adulthood for them. I can see both why Dulquer was willing to take the part, and why the filmmakers wanted such a big name for such a small role.
The real leads of the film are the two boys, Amal Shah and Govind V. Pal. They are the ones who have the leading role in the present day, and it is their boyish perspective that informs how we see the past. Second to them would be Shane Nigam, providing the role of the foolish young man, just out of boyhood. And then Siddique as the adult man, the one looking down on all of them and making his own mistakes as he tries to protect them.
It’s hard to pick out one central actor from this mix, or even one central story, because that is how the film is structured, everything thrown in together at the same time, the story flitting from one place to another. The central image is of homing pigeons, and that’s also how the film functions, like a homing pigeon, flying over and around everything that is happening, but eventually finding their way home to the pigeon coop and the two boys.
The narrative goes back and forth, but it doesn’t matter because the images carry us along. This is one of those really beautiful Malayalam films, where something as simple as a young boys bedroom is filmed with such a glow around it that it looks like a painting. And the visuals tell the story, as the narrative leaps back and forth in time we see a sign that was painted on a water tower and then, in the next scene, that same sign faded away to nothing showing how time has passed. We see the prettiest girl in school in a headscarf, standing out from her classmates by it’s bright color. We see the way children shuffle in and out of benches that tells us everything about who they are in their classrooms. It’s a film worth watching just for those small moments alone, the overall narrative is a bonus.
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The “plot”, as much as there is one, revolves around 3 central conflicts. First is the boys, Amal Shah and Govind V. Pal, and their pigeons. They are preparing for the next big race, but one of their prize pigeons has been stolen by adult rivals. Along with this conflict, Govind is held back a year in school and gets a crush on an older girl.
The second conflict is between the young men. Shane, Govind’s older brother, was part of a close group of friends revolving around a cricket club. Shane got caught up in a feud with a group of local drug dealers/users and it lead to the death of Dulquer. After that, the group kind of fell apart, the other friends still spending time together but not with Shane, and not playing Cricket any more.
And then there is the third conflict which, ultimately, becomes the most important. Shane’s father Siddique stopped talking to him after Dulquer’s death, blamed him for what happened and was angry with him. And this is the conflict that lead to the others, Shane’s shame and guilt thanks to his father’s reaction made him break from his friends and broke their group. And the conflict in the family made Govind fail in school, escape into a crush, and focus on his pigeons.
In the end, all three conflicts resolve together. Shane discovers that the drug addicts have come back and are the ones who stole Govind’s pigeons, goes to fight them and finds back-up from his old friends, and finally finds support from his father Siddique who comes to fight for him and support him, at last. Because all three conflicts are really the same, learning to back people up, to have trust in them, and show it.
This lesson has been seeded through out the film, the importance of support, of trust, instead of judgments and punishment. Especially on young growing boys. Govind failed to pass and was held back. But his teacher, instead of rubbing salt in the wound, was cheerful and kind about it, offered to help him, and made him the class monitor so the other kids wouldn’t tease him. And it let Govind blossom. Later, Govind was caught going into an adult movie. His father, instead of yelling at him, talked to him calmly.
This is the same way Dulquer tried to treat his friends, the young men he was mentoring. He patiently listened to their problems and understood their mistakes, and helped them solve them. When Shane fell in love with a young woman at the charity school where the team volunteered, Dulquer teased a little, made sure Shane was serious and intended to do the right thing, and then helped. When Shane got caught up randomly in this feud with the drug dealers, Dulquer blamed him for the initial mistake but understood it wasn’t all his fault and tried to protect him. He was the perfect mentor, and the perfect friend, doing what was needed to help these young men own their responsibilities without killing them with guilt.
And the young men are responsible for their mistakes, because young men are foolish and can make mistakes. When I was reading a synopsis before seeing the film, Shane’s feud didn’t make much sense. But seeing it, I understood, it wasn’t supposed to make sense. Shane and his friend heard about a shop owner who made creepy jokes and made his friend’s sister uncomfortable. They were young and foolish and angry, and they reacted by going to beat up the shop owner. Which was a bad decision, but not an irretrievably bad one. There wasn’t necessarily a super decision in this case, maybe they could have had their fathers come in instead of them, or maybe they could have threatened violence but not done it, but it was a situation where there was no “proper” authority who could have made a difference. It’s just that once violence has started, it has the possibility of unintended consequences, and that is what makes it foolish.
The escalation came simply because in the process of beating up the shop owner, the young men also interfered with drug access for the drug addicts. The drug addicts took revenge by attacking them, the young men fought back, and it escalated on and on through multiple encounters. At any point, Shane could have stopped back, tried to end it before it went farther. But it would have been hard, especially for a young man who had always followed someone else’s lead, to stand back and try to change the course of events. That’s how things can go wrong for young men in particular, peer pressure and excitement and poor judgement can take a series of small mistakes and make then into something enormous.
Shane’s reaction was to stop doing anything. The first time we see him, the rival pigeon races are coming down the stairs past the apartment after threatening Govind, Shane just watches and then snaps a towel at them. As Govind’s older brother, or just as someone who lives in the apartment building they are trampling all over, he should be acting, warning them off, protecting his household somehow. But he can’t even do that much. He can’t go to a friend’s wedding, he can’t talk to his family, he can’t do anything. His salvation comes in deciding that action, even if it can have unintended consequences, is better than inaction.
Govind learned that lesson early and in a healthy way, a right way of growing up. He went too far in his crush, kissing her secretly, and then was terrified his whole school life would be ruined. Only to have her forgive him the next day and tell him she already forgot it, nothing to worry about. His teacher helps him fix his grades. Things go wrong, he did something bad, but it’s not the end of the world, he can keep going and do better the next time.
It’s Siddique, ultimately, who has the hardest lesson. Because fatherhood is harder than any other test of manhood. He went along without thinking at first, enjoyed how Shane was growing up, appreciated that he had found a fine mentor in Dulquer, and let Govind be raised by his mother primarily. But then it all went wrong and Dulquer died and Siddique didn’t know what to do. He lashed out, went too far, crossed lines he couldn’t go back on. And after months of doing nothing, he is trying to fight his way back, to find a way to be a father without being an enemy. It’s easier with Govind, farther removed, but with Shane it’s not until the very end that he can trust himself to act again, to support him and protect him and forgive him without feeling like he is letting him off too easily.
And then the pigeons fly free, the young men play cricket again, the boys watch, and order is restored. 3 age groups growing in a line, Govind has his older brother to look up to, Shane has his father, Siddique has confidence in himself again as the head of this chain, and there is hope in the world again.