Kumbalangi Nights is a light-hearted movie full of heavy-hearted characters. But the languid levity with which these characters go about shattering the cinematic conventions can both break and mend the hearts of audience. There is a special kind of magic in the script where one minute the characters wallow themselves in the bottomless pit of pathos, and the next minute they find in the same pit an antidote to all their miseries. It requires special skills on the writer’s part to turn a light-hearted subject matter on its head and use it to bring out the best in characters.
kumbalangi nights isn’t your typical slice of life movie at the end of which you can walk out of the theater with a broad smile on your face and an adage or two in your mind. It modestly touches on themes like love, brotherhood and suffering with the lightness of an evening breeze. In this small world, you will find internecine scuffle between brothers, people falling in and out of love, and more importantly people discovering their infinite capacity for love.The film uses the naïve simplicity of its characters to great effect. Sometimes as a source of comic relief, and at other times to show the characters’ longing for a decent life in a place where cards are always stacked against them.
Here director Madhu C. Narayanan wants to capture the dysfunctional relationship in a working class environment and its inevitable implications on the social lives of the individuals. In this working class setting, their shabby cloths, unfinished house, worn out bedspread and torn blankets become as important a plot device as the expressions of melancholy on characters’ faces. Just as with his previous works, Syam Pushkaran takes a slow but tout approach to capture the quirkiness of his characters, giving each of them their moment to transcend the confines of the script. You can’t help but see the air of confidence they ooze, and the layers of emotions they express to remain as faithful to the script as possible.
The story follows a number of life-altering days in the lives of four brothers, namely Saji, Bobby, Bonnie, Frankie. Saji, now an orphan, is the only child from Napoleon’s first marriage. Bobby, Bonnie and Frankie are Napoleon’s children from his second marriage to a woman who left the family soon after his death. The siblings share a toxic relationship that is as irredeemable as a dysfunctional boat adrift in the stormy sea with no authoritative figure at the helm. Film starts off with a mildly inebriated Bobby (Shane Nigam) calling Saji (Soubin Thahir) out for his parasitic existence.
Saji leads a wreck of a life. He’s someone teetering on the verge of breaking point. They taunt each other for their professional ineptitude, and their perceived inability to get ahead in life. By the way, Bobby is an unemployed idler who is no position to attack Saji for his personal shortcomings. But that’s not the point. The film portrays these characters as individuals incapable of changing the course of their lives. We immediately identify each as destined to leave no mark of their own on this world. The story picks up pace when Bobby falls in love with a girl from a respectable family. He is now compelled to make better career choices in order to ask her brother-in-law (Fahadh Faasil) for her hand in marriage. All I can say is Fahadh plays a special character who would not look out of place in Yorgos Lanthimos movies. It actually made for a cool character study which I will perhaps write about in the future.
Despite being the youngest of the four brothers, Frankie is the most level headed person who for the most part sagely watches fights break out between the siblings. For a boy who just returned home for school vacation, his face emanates the resignation of a decorated war hero. Perhaps at this young age he has involuntarily found himself in the middle of too many sibling battles to care about it anymore. In the course of the story, you learn a lot about them, and yet at the end of it you come away feeling the most visceral urge to peel off the layers to learn a little bit more.
We see cleverly balanced characters who seem content to hide their suffering beneath the visage of everyday cheerfulness. Their coarseness and buffoonery at times look like the best way to live their ordinary life to the fullest extent. Though at first we chuckle our way through a series of playful scenes, we soon sense traces of poignancy in their dialogues. Music director Sushin Shyam amplifies this emotive tapestry with his well-timed acoustic dirges and ambient synths. Here, Sushin just like the writer seems to possess an innate understanding of the character dynamics in that he is able to pluck the right chords and play the right note.
Each frame in this film is tinged with a brand of pathos and irony unique to the foibles of its characters. Syam Pushkaran is careful not to romanticize poverty just for the sake of making the proceedings more sentimentally palatable for the audience. He knows his characters so well in that he doesn’t make them undergo some sappy character transformation, nor does he make them seek meaning of life beyond the ordinariness of their oppressive existence. They are mostly just happy being sad. But short-sighted as they may be about their own lives, these are characters with great emotional intelligence. Without ever stripping these characters of their inelegant humanity, the writer lets them find their own personal truths about life, suffering and brotherhood in some heartwarming moments.