Wednesday Malayalam Rerun: Kumbalangi Nights, Arguably the Best Malayalam Film of 2019

I’m reposting AGAIN! Hopefully some new people saw the film since the last time I posted, or old people had Brilliant Ideas to add on and share.

This is a very verbal film. Which is a problem for me in two ways. First, of course, I don’t speak Malayalam. That’s on me, not the film, it’s a good thing for movies to have their own languages and cultural touchstones and all the rest of it. But the second part is kind of a little on the film. It’s a verbal film, rather than a visual one. There are subtle moments that could have been conveyed more through the images than through the dialogue. My taste in film has always been visual rather than dialogue driven, that’s why I like Indian movies to begin with, because they are so visual. A dialogue heavy film is always going to turn me off a little bit. And a dialogue heavy film in a language I don’t understand is going to be hard for me to fully appreciate.

Image result for kumbalangi nights

I’m putting that upfront because I know I did not like this film as much as some of you did, and I was trying to figure out why. It’s not just not having the language, it’s that too much of the film was non-visual. But that’s not a flaw in the film necessarily. From the moments of pure visual storytelling that were included, I know the director has that tool in his tool box. For instance, that we see one household almost always at night and one almost always during the day, until the dramatic ending when the night invades the day. But he also wanted to tell a story where the words used by the characters were an important part in the overall meaning.

I think I can understand what I was missing by not having the words. From what I could piece together it is the dialogue that turns this from a tragic film to more of a comic film. The turn of phrase in the fights between the family makes you laugh, tells you that it is okay to laugh at what is happening instead of cry. I assume that is what was happening, because I was watching this in a sold-out theater and everyone was laughing during scenes that, to me, read more like serious drama (just based on what the English subtitles were saying). Part of the humor, I am guessing, comes from the very sincere and tormented acting styles as folks deliver these silly lines. And the very dramatic background music cues.

Come to think of it, that sensation of “something doesn’t quite fit between what is being shown and what is being said” ties in to the story this film is telling. There is one set of characters that is an open book, they say what they feel and what they mean, there is nothing hidden there. And there is another set, that is closed, impenetrable, and a little disturbing because it is so hard to understand them. And both sets deserve credit for being able to play the roles they play.

Shane Nigam continues his slow growth from “is that guy a good actor and also kind of hot? I’m not sure, maybe?” to “I am excited in two ways every time he shows up onscreen!” Fahadh Faasil continues his willingness to take the interesting part whether or not it is the hero’s role. Soubin Shahir is wonderful, melding comic and dramatic without ever feeling like he goes too far. Mathew Thomas has a great face and mostly just has to look young and innocent. The women are there too, and are also good, especially Grace Antony in a difficult role as an unreadable new wife. But this is mostly a movie about men. And that’s okay, like Parava this is a movie that deals with men growing up in a layered and complex way, it doesn’t ignore the women, it just wants to talk about the very specific experience of being a man in the world.

Image result for shane nigam kumbalangi nights
Yep, definitely hot now

It also wants to talk about family and, more than that, eco-systems. It is not a coincidence that this movie is set in a green tourism zone. It is about people who fit into this environment, work with it and flow with it, and those who fight against it, try to organize and control everything. There is a metaphor used often of our central family living at the end of the islet where folks throw their trash. But another way to think of it is the other people are trying to control the mess, to get rid of anything that doesn’t fit in with their perfect view of the world. But our heroes, they welcome those things, they find a place for them, make them fit, help the whole world live together in a harmonic system, allow nature and natural instincts to flourish. They all start by wanting to escape this place, blaming nature for being nature (whether it is themselves or their relatives or just the “messy” way their house looks). But in the end, the resolution is to give up, to accept, to let what is, be.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

I’m gonna start with the bare bones of the plot, just to get it out of the way. There are 4 brothers. The two oldest are step brothers, born to their mother and father from previous marriages, Soubin Shahir and Sreenath Bhasi (musician/actor, I always enjoy his performances). The two youngest, Shane Nigam and Mathew Thomas are full brothers. Sreenath lives away from the others in an musicians’ colony. Soubin and Shane stumble through their days surviving on the small amount of money that Soubin makes from running an ironing business, and fishing when they are hungry. And Mathew has a future, has a scholarship to a good school, but dreams of his family being happy and Soubin and Shane not fighting so much, and Sreenath coming home.

Shane falls in love with Anna Ben, a young woman with dreams, she works at the local resort and runs a guest house out of her uncle’s home. Anna Ben’s family has a new brother-in-law, Fahadh Fasil, who is a little odd and hard to read. Shane and Soubin approach him about an engagement, and Fahadh tells Shane to get a real job. Shane goes to work at a fish factory, and hates it. Soubin is angrier and angrier around the home, especially when Shane says that they will need to move out after he gets married. He fights Shane, Sreenath shows up and hits him, he is upset and goes off to talk to his friend and employee about how sad he is that his brother’s no longer love him, he doesn’t have anything. He tries to kill himself, his friend tries to stop him, and dies himself. Soubin is miserable and asks Mathew to take him to a doctor, he talks to a psychiatrist about his guilt and misery, and then goes to apologize to the widow of his friend and ends up taking her and her newborn baby back to their house. Meanwhile, Sreenath has started dating a young African-American tourist staying at Anna’s guesthouse. Fahadh finds them together and throws her out, Sreenath takes her back to the family home as well. Mathew is beginning to have a family again, the two women and the baby, plus his brothers are around more.

Shane quits his job and goes back to fishing with his family, even though it is “low-class”. Fahadh is still against the marriage, and Shane and Anna plan to elope. But Anna’s sister Grace Antony tells Fahadh and he wakes her up in the middle of the night and they have a confrontation. Grace stands up for her sister, and Fahadh loses his mind. Shane and his brothers come to find out what is happening because Anna isn’t answer her phone, Fahadh tries to kill them but they finally catch him in a fishing net and tie him up, and rescue Grace Antony and Anna and their aunt who have been beaten and tied up. It ends with a family wedding at the family house, with the widow and her baby, the African-American tourist, and all 4 brothers living their together.

There is a grand sweep to the film. The 4 brothers are all looking for a family, and looking anywhere but at what they have. Soubin reveres and misses his father, and has adopted his employee as a second little brother instead of trying to build a better relationship with the brothers he has. Sreenath has gone to live with the musicians, forming a new family with them. And Shane falls in love and dreams of a new family and a new life with Anna. The first half is about them trying to break away over and over again, Sreenath and Shane starting their relationships, Soubin finding a substitute brother in his employee, even Mathew lying to his friends at school about his home life and dreaming of his mother. And the second half is coming to accept what they have and who they are. They don’t need to create some perfect version of life, with a modern factory job and fixing up the house and all the other superficial elements. They don’t even have to convince their mother to return home to create their perfect family. They just have to accept what they have and what they are, forget outside status. Fish for a living, bring home an African-American girlfriend (so important that she is both African and American, so with the freedom and open mind and outsider quality of an American, but without the status symbol of having a white girlfriend), accept a widow and her baby as a blessing and a “sister” in their household. And give up and elope with the woman you love instead of waiting for a perfect wedding with family blessings.

Their circumstances don’t substantially change from the start to the finish of the film, they don’t even plaster the walls of their house. But their feelings about the circumstances change. Fishing is a real job and an option, it’s okay to get married and bring your new wife back to your unplastered house, everything is fine because they learn to see it as fine, to see it as a good thing.

And the flipside is what is happening in Fahadh Faazil’s house. Everything seems perfect because they are told it is perfect. One little trick the film plays is that in the first few scenes we think of Fahadh as being a desirable son-in-law and a successful man. He dresses well and carefully, he has a Royal Enfield, his wife is wearing gold, and his in-laws treat him with respect. But then we see him at his job, a barber with a little shop. It’s not a bad job, but it isn’t office work or even as good as his sister-in-law’s job as a tour guide at the resort. And then there is the oddness that he is living in his wife’s house, really his wife’s uncle’s house, and taking it over as the head of household. But he has done nothing to earn this nice house, he is just living off the labor of his wife’s family. The longer he stays in the house, the odder it seems. But he is the son-in-law, and he acts like it is his house and his decision to make in every way and everyone kind of accepts it, assumes that he really is wise and important and worthy of respect. Just as they assume that Shane Nigam is a bad matrimonial prospect in comparison because he doesn’t have a regular job or a plan and his family house is on the bad side of town and not even plastered.

I said in the “No Spoilers” section that the performances in this film are divided into people it is impossible to get a read on, and ones who are an open book. Fahadh Faazil is impossible to read. It’s a great performance, he is always smiling and laughing and seems to be harmless, and yet there is an undercurrent of oddness, mostly in how hard to read he is, how he never seems to really feel anything about anything. Grace Antony though was the one who really surprised me. Fahadh I expected something special both from his performance and his character, he is the producer after all. But Grace Antony perfectly played a difficult character. She is a new bride, so she is eager to please her husband, smiling all the time, rushing after him when he leaves the room, seemingly tranquil and content in her marriage. She trusts her husband, telling him secrets from her sister’s life, doing whatever he asks of her. In an early scene, when Fahadh is awkwardly insulting of her uncle, she turns it into a joke about her uncle’s cooking. Later, she is triumphing her ability to maintain peace to Anna, and Anna says that she merely buried their uncle further in his grave. As we, the viewer, come to trust Fahadh less and less, she seems more and more like she is betraying her sister and her family. It appears that in her pride as a new bride, she doesn’t care about her family any more, only appearances.

But then at the very end of the film, Fahadh wakes Anna in the middle of the night and yells at her, and Grace Antony stands up for her sister, fearlessly. It’s that “fearless” that is a surprise. In a different film, or with a different actress, it would be played in such a way that makes us feel she feared her husband and that is why she went along with him until now. But instead it is played that she obeyed him not out of a specific fear of him as a person, but more a general sense of what the right way to behave was, she was brainwashed into believing he was a desirable husband and worthy of her respect, that she was just being asked to do the “normal” things a wife should. It wasn’t fear she was hiding in earlier scenes, it was doubt, doubt that Fahadh really was worthy of her respect, doubt that this was the best marriage for her. And as soon as she confronts him, he backs down, goes to hide in a corner. There is still no fear, just an awareness that he is acting in an odd manner. That’s what makes the ending so powerful, someone who has always seemed a little “odd” but more funny than scary, suddenly revealing a terrifying side to him.

Grace Antony, and her mother Ambika Rao, are where the most interesting statement about masculinity lies. It’s not just about who men are (Soubin and Shane always physically fighting because it’s the only way they know to express their feelings, Thomas Mathew wanting a family life but not knowing how to make it, and so on), it’s about the society around them that lets them be that way. Grace Antony and Ambika Rao accept unquestioningly that Fahadh is the head of the household, deserves obedience in all ways, because that is how they have been trained to think. More than that, it is easy and comfortable to think that way. Better to just let Fahadh take the lead on everything than make an effort and think outside the lines. Anna is just as ready to think inside the lines at the start. She wants her relationship with Shane to follow a nice respectable path, they don’t kiss until after engagement, they get engaged with the approval of their families, he gets a job, they find a nice place together. But spending more time with Shane and the “we are already trash, so there are no rules” kind of life he lives makes her rethink things. She starts to stand up to Fahadh more and more at home and question her assumptions about a happy life and what a “husband” looks like. And her rebellion sparks a rebellion in Grace Antony which is when the patriarchy truly comes tumbling down. Fahadh can’t keep control through posturing any more, he has to resort to physical violence. He has to bring in chaos instead of order, destroy their lives once they learn they can live without him.

Really that’s what the whole film is about, chaos versus order. The 4 brothers, they live in chaos, they embrace chaos and lawlessness. Any effort at creating order leads to misery for them, even something as simple as Shane wanting a “normal” job and a “normal” marriage tears the family apart. But happiness comes once they let that go, accept the good in life because it is good for them. And then chaos becomes order, strangers become family, poverty becomes wealth, night becomes day.

9 thoughts on “Wednesday Malayalam Rerun: Kumbalangi Nights, Arguably the Best Malayalam Film of 2019

  1. I don’t have anything new to say about the film but I watched a YouTube review by two Hollywood actors who have a popular Indian movie reaction channel, and they raved about this one and said it was maybe the best film they’d seen in 2019, even better than Parasite. They were particularly taken with the acting by the whole cast and the cinematography. They noted that it’s the director’s first film, which I didn’t realize (damn, what a way to make your debut). They also said that they think KN would be a great introduction to Indian films for a Westerner who’d never seen them before and I agree on that. I think the newer Malayalam films would do really well on the art house circuit and I wonder if any of the directors have an interest in pursuing that.

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    • There’s a lot of really spectacular first films in Malayalam cinema. I think they make their directors work harder before they get a shot. Hindi has all those wunderkinds handed a movie on their first shot, Malayalam has a lot more people who worked as assistants, or cinematographers, or scriptwriters for years and years first.

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    • Malayalam films,since late 70s had two worlds of ‘art’ films and ‘commercial’ films running parallely. There are auter filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan,Aravindan,Shaji N Karun etc who are revered on par with Satyajit Ray. But their socially relevant,deeply layered films used to put an average Malayali viewer to sleep because of the very dry film making style. The term ‘Art film’ is used in every day conversation to mean yawn inducing or less speaking.The current generation has managed to merge the two sensibilities wonderfully that makes both the nerdy/artsy & the regular audience happy. I guess it helped that the current generation of filmmakers grew up watching the pure art,the regular commercial and then the trashy star mass movies that came in later. They understand that even the best of stories need to be told engagingly but without disrespecting the audience intelligence. It probably helps that Malayalam is small industry where the returns and losses are lesser compared to Bollywood,so there isn’t a need to satisfy every type of movie goer which automatically gives freedom to make what they want in the exact way they want. Recent films like Muthoon & Jallikkatu are pure art circuit movie which know their target & has no delusional aspirations for box-office numbers. They now additionally have the internet cinephile crowd to rave about them & give that artistic validation.

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      • I’ll just add on that Muthoon and Jallikattu both premiered at Toronto, weeks before they released in India. So the filmmakers knew where the audience would be and went for it.

        On Thu, Jan 30, 2020 at 10:42 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Best film’s in Malayalam 2019 are done by debut directors like kumbalangi nights, Helen,uyare,June,thanneermathan dinangal, Ishq, tamasha, Android kunjappan etc

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  3. Anna Ben runs the resort at her house. Its not her uncle’s resort. Also, they live in their own house, not uncle’s. There is one shot where Fahad Fasil sits in front of the photograph of their late father to show his prominence.

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