Amidst the cries of #MeToo and debates on ambiguous forms of feminism, Kumbalangi Nights comes as a breath of fresh air that deals with the other side of the coin. It comes at a pertinent time in Kerala society, quashing patriarchal perceptions of masculinity.
The aarkum vendatha four brothers – Saji (Soubin Shahir), Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi), Bobby (Shane Nigam), and Frankie (Mathew Thomas) – cast away in a “shit-lined” island of Kumbalangi, are projected to be everything that an ideal man befitting today’s civilisation, should not be. Enmeshed in public drunken brawls, giving careless respect to their deceased father, harbouring scant regard for each other as siblings, being the unemployed village loafers, and living off another’s honest efforts – the film portrays all the evils of the contemporary community plaguing certain sections of men. That’s where the parallel is drawn with the “Complete Man” – Shammi (Fahad Fazil) – the adarsha purushan who stands for everything that is perceived to make a respectful gentleman in society – an obsession bordering on OCD to be well-groomed, possessing a respectable regular job, and being the patriarchal head of an all-women family comprising his wife Simi (Grace Antony), her younger sister Baby (Anna Ben), and their mother (Ambika Rao) – whom he feels dutiful towards to take care of and be responsible for.
Saji’s helplessness in being unable to release his emotions at the unexpected death of his companion Murugan, and eventual catharsis at the visit to the doctor is one of the most poignant moments of the film. It holds up a mirror to the ‘Malayali man’ who is encumbered by societal and familial pressures to be an emotionless figure of manhood.
The character of Bobby is perhaps the most common figure that many a youth of today will find resonance with. His self-awareness of being an unemployed youth, unfit to be a match for his lover Baby, shows the maturity of a youngster perceived to be aimless. It also, perhaps, scores a point over the blind “true love” of Baby’s, who overlooks his position in the social order and loves him for the person he is, one with a “nalla manasu” – as she points out twice in the film. When she mentions it the first time to her sister, the audience also laughs along with Simi, at the naivete of Baby, who seems to bring back the old-fashioned romance which is blind and impractical – when girls from privileged families fell for ‘autorickshaw drivers’ and the like. It is only at the end of the film that the audience realises the enormous importance of that one essential quality that is enough to love and accept someone – “nalla manasu”.
Shammi’s denouncing of his wife’s uncle’s cooking reeks of toxic masculinity. His veiled effort of calling the family together during meal-time, while slyly sliding his chair towards the head of the table, with clever camera-work that shows him overshadowing the erstwhile male head of the family, is symbolic of the power structure that virulent masculinity upholds within the family structure. The bursting of Shammi’s bubble – “Shammi hero aada, hero” – at the climax is another moment that raises a mirror to our respectable, genteel society, which carries the ‘Complete Man’ on its head.
However, the film does reinforce certain gender norms – such as a house becoming a home only when there is a female presence in it. And that it takes a woman to reform a man. But the film is heartening in its portrayal of empowered women and shows how they are the enabler for the men in their lives. Sumeesha’s love for Prasanth runs parallel to Baby’s for Bobby – two independent working women falling for unemployed youths. Sumeesha’s acceptance of Prasanth is an instance of crushing perceived notions where it is thought that it is difficult for a man who is not that good-looking, to get a girl – something that even takes Prasanth’s own buddy Bobby by surprise, prompting him to remark upon Sumeesha that her love transcends physical appearance, to which she gives a fitting, refreshing response that not only slaps Bobby awake, but the audience as well.
Murugan’s wife’s acceptance of the security provided by Saji and his brothers speaks as much about the young widow’s pragmatism and disregard for society, as Saji’s empty heart and home that seek to be fulfilled. Baby’s outspokenness and rebelliousness towards her “older brother” figure of her brother-in-law cuts a dent into Shammi’s construct of the image of a patriarchal head of the family. But his wife’s firm-footed stepping up against her husband, in support of her sister, just while everyone was thinking of her as lapsing into the ‘obedient wifely’ figure under the male-dominated makeup, wins loud applause from all quarters, signalling the shaking up of the power architecture in patriarchal domestic set-ups.
The second most important point that the film throws light upon is the dignity of labour. While young men today increasingly fall under the burden of finding ‘respectable, dignified’ jobs, with qualifications that allow them to sit at par with the ‘Complete Men’ that society upholds; Kumbalangi Nights lays bare the painful reality of casting away one’s passion and natural calling. It brings home the truth that being a son of the waters, it is futile to close a blind eye to the natural fisherman one is, and seek false hopes in other shores. After all, it is the fishing net that helps them save their enablers and net the monster lurking within the household.
In the end, the door-less, forsaken structure of a house in the abandoned corner of Kumbalangi, wins over society as it gets enclosed by the love and understanding of the women and men who inhabit it and turn it into a home, and turning the very men who were the bane of society into the real heroes.