It isn’t often that a film manages to succinctly embody the environment where it’s set, sincerely portraying the man within his milieu while pondering how the latter shapes the former. Yet Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial debut manages to do just that, and how. Kumbalangi Nights dons a calming and serene surface appearance, much like the soothing blue waterways coursing through its eponymous fishing village. Yet just beneath this façade of natural tranquil, there’s a lot that’s brewing inside the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
Kumbalangi‘s story sets off with four brothers Franky (Mathew Thomas), Bobby (Shane Nigam), Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi) and Saji (Soubin Shahir), living in their dilapidated little shack by the coast. Bobby and Saji, always at loggerheads with each other, while away their days getting stoned and frequenting the local bar. Their lives seem to lack any impetus to improve, as they neglect maintaining even their primary source of income: fishing. Bonny is a mute, largely staying away from the petty squabbles at home, while the youngest Franky is a promising footballer with a bunch of medals and certificates to show for.
Their lives are counterposed against the hypermasculine Shammi (Fahadh Faasil), whose sister-in-law Baby (Anna Ben) is fated to fall in love with Bobby. Shammi’s character is metaphorically sketched in the very first shot he inhabits―admiring himself in a mirror that reflects back his vanity―nursing his prized moustache (the very symbol of his machismo) while peeling off a bindi with his razor. His insecurity leads him to flagrantly violate the dignity of women inside his home, as we see him relentlessly digging into his wife Simmy’s private conversation with Baby inside their kitchen.
Kumbalangi‘s narrative doesn’t fuss with typical concerns of establishing clearly-defined protagonists and antagonists, rather focussing on how each character feels trapped within their predicament. An air of composure and rustic idyll dominates the cinematography, with the makers letting plenty of scenes develop quietly without the usually-invasive musical score. Kumbalangi flirts with genre tropes now and again, but Narayanan’s ingenious direction helps it narrowly skirt past common clichés, at times even subverting them. In a beautiful flourish, after Bobby throws a fishing net, the image of the flowing mesh is cheekily juxtaposed against a medium-shot of Baby: the perfect catch, if there ever was one in this guy’s life.
The central conflict only arises after the lovebirds decide to tie the knot, as they meet resistance from the egotist Shammi. He happens to look down upon Bobby’s family of fishermen, which later renders a certain climactic event (involving the fishing net) all the more ironic. As we see Shammi shaving off Bobby’s facial hair, it almost feels like an act of emasculation given the thinly-veiled insults that soon follow. Despite his frequent smiles and easy charm (or perhaps because of them), Faasil manages to lend a distinctly menacing quality to Shammi’s character. In fact, his final confrontation with Simmy and Baby is edited and scored so as to almost resemble a horror movie sequence.
Following one of the darkest moments in the film, eldest brother Saji seems to emerge re-born after an unforeseen sacrifice saves his life, in what seems like a clear Christological parallel where a friend literally dies for the other’s sins. Instead of ‘manning up’ and living in denial of his crippling despair, Saji decides to seek therapy―in keeping with Kumbalangi‘s stance against toxic masculinity. Editor Saiju Sreedharan deftly crosscuts between Saji’s session with his therapist and Bobby conversing with Baby, to reveal suppressed emotions and words unspoken while simultaneously expounding their familial history.
Love becomes a beautiful thing in Kumbalangi Nights, not relegated to be just another genre attraction unlike in most commercial productions. Rather it is raised to a level where it binds humans together across torrid times, becoming the prime mover of fortunes within the men’s lives. It isn’t simply a means to get the two leads within each other’s arms, as a romantic number plays in the background. Kumbalangi shows how love can act as a genuine force that works as an antidote to bitterness, overcoming negativity and making lives whole, by just helping ordinary men and women be slightly better versions of themselves.