The Problem With Kumbalangi Nights

I finally saw Kumbalangi Nights recently. I wish I’d listened to my friend’s recommendation and watched it in the theatre. But even after hearing rave reviews about it for months, I ended up loving the movie. It lived up to the hype. It was great. Nearly perfect, I’d say. Up until the moment Shammi ran to the corner of the room. I wish he hadn’t done that. Here’s why.

Now, a few disclaimers before I explain what I didn’t like about Kumbalangi Nights (KN). I’ve watched very few Malayalam movies. I could count on my fingers all the Malayalam movies I’ve seen over the past decade. And no, it’s not something I’m proud of. I wish I’d seen more instead of wasting my time on terrible Network T.V. Shows about cops and superheroes.

Secondly, what I didn’t like about KN doesn’t detract from its merits and overall quality. That’s an important point. There are many movies that lose all goodwill with just one bad scene at the end. In the case of Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial debut, the climax only stops it from being near perfect. It doesn’t ruin the whole movie.

So why did I feel an increasing sense of disappointment from the moment Fahadh Faasil’s character dashed off to the corner of the room?

Shammi is the new brother-in-law of Baby, and from the very beginning of the movie, it’s clear that he’s the antagonist of the story. He’s the kind of guy who the neighbourhood kids are afraid of. The kind of person who can make his wife flinch at the merest suggestion. Everything he does and says are examples of a particular type of behaviour. And Fahadh Faasil being who he is, Shammi is convincingly portrayed.

But as what?

If you were watching the movie for the first time and I paused it two minutes before Shammi rushed to the corner of the room, what would you say was wrong with him?

Here’s what I thought, and I have a strong feeling many of you might concur. He’s a comically evil, misogynistic, patriarchal, domineering, insecure, duplicitous young man. He’s unreasonably proud of his job as a barber and disparaging of anyone who’s at a slightly lower station in life. He is passive-aggressive, nosy and domineering towards his wife, yet wonders out loud why she should ever feel uncomfortable around him.

All of this is fleshed out brilliantly throughout the movie. Syam Pushkaran’s script doesn’t need to fall back on simplistic exposition at the beginning of the movie. There is no character sitting in a tea stall and delivering a lengthy monologue about how terrible Shammi is as the barber proudly rides by on his bike.

So after an hour and a half of solid character work, why does Shammi hover in the corner of the room for over twenty minutes, leaving his wife and sister in law baffled? Was it just a stress release technique of chauvinistic pigs that they were unaware of? No. Instead, the characters in the movie and the audience watching it realize this man is actually psychotic. The official line from the Wikipedia plot summary reads as “suffering from some mental illness and behavioural issues”, and I’ll take their word for it. Because we’re not offered an explanation. No exposition from a relative or friend. Not even a throwaway line about what made him go berserk. This is excluding what his terrified hostages tell each other, mind you. They’re just guessing like you and I are supposed to.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a character’s behaviour being attributed to mental illness. In fact, it’s a topic that definitely needs to be explored more. And is it possible that Shammi was suffering from sociopathic tendencies? Yes. It’s possible. But it isn’t plausible, and that’s where the weakness of the script is exposed.

Here’s an unpolished example of what I mean by something being possible, but not plausible in a story. Remember Big B? If you do, then you’ll remember the climax scene where the underworld Don’s men leave him and join Bilal and his brothers. Alright, now imagine if this was the climax instead: The Underworld Don and Bilal confront each other, exchange tense words, and just as it looks like the Don is going to order them to be killed…he has a stroke.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death among males in India, right?

It’s entirely plausible that the villain in Big B could croak from clogged arteries moments before Mammooty is supposed to be shot dead.

But theatres throughout Kerala would be in an uproar if that’s what actually happened.

As a plot twist, it just isn’t plausible. It doesn’t fit with the narrative. It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, what if Amal Neerad looked at this fictional version of the script, and wanted to make the ending possible? He’d go back and use foreshadowing. What if he added a dinner scene early into the movie, where the Don screams at the cook for giving him egg whites rather than an egg omelette, only for the cook to meekly say, “Sir, I thought because of your cholesterol level, the Doctor had said…”

Would you say that alone is enough to foreshadow such a massive twist?

If your answer, like mine, is an emphatic “No!”, here’s what I’m wondering. What foreshadowing did KN do to set up Shammi as a mental patient? The fact that he only eats from his personal plate?

There’s an additional issue with this plot twist as well, one my dear friend and colleague at PinkLungi Shahbaz Mohamed mentioned it to me. Is Shammi’s misogynist and cha – let’s shorten this – Is Shammi a dick to the women in his life simply because he is ill? Because I thought that he along with Bobby were representative of negative male behaviour? When Bobby storms out of the theatre after being denied a kiss, he screams “Njan oru aananadi!” (I’m a man!). The movie they’d been watching? Arjun Reddy.

So when Bobby later mends his ways and becomes more respectful of Baby, it’s progress. And simultaneously, Shammi was portrayed as the terrible male whose backward mentality deeply affected the entire household. He controlled or at least attempted to control the lives of three women.

But in the end, had Simmy, the timid wife hitherto bent on appeasing an insecure husband, just stood up to him by smashing an electric mosquito racket? She, you and I thought so. Twenty minutes later, she’s left to think she’d just triggered a psycho. Psychos are rare. Chauvinists are extremely common. It’s a pity the folks behind KN brought our conscious and subconscious attention to the latter, only to pull off a bait and switch.

The underdeveloped logic of Shammi being psychotic also took away from just how brilliantly they filmed the entire sequence. Which is a real shame, because not many Malayalam movies can fluidly switch genres within a movie. But in KN, a family drama/love story smoothly transitions into near horror, thanks to perfect direction, cinematography, camera work, editing and acting. I wasn’t annoyed by the plot twist while watching it, because Madhu C. Narayanan, Fahadh Faasil, Soubin Shahir and Sreenath Bhasi didn’t let me take my eyes off the screen.

Change in genre or tone within the movie can be absolutely rewarding for both the filmmakers and the audience, but only if it’s done correctly. Think of the movie Action Hero Biju. If towards the climax of the movie, Nivin Pauly opened up the armoury at Police Headquarters and prepared for a gun battle like Terminator, by strapping on guns, ammunition and armour, it would be ridiculous! Because the entire tone, theme and script of the movie do not call for it at all.

Kumbalangi Nights is perhaps my favourite representation of a dysfunctional family, not just in Malayalam, but in cinema in general. Within two hours, I came to love and cherish characters played by actors, most of whom I’d never seen before. There were so many things that were great with the movie. I just wish they could have concluded it without making Shammi a living Dues Ex Machina. The story needed Bobby and Baby to get married and for the brothers to unite and forge a stronger bond. Not to mention resolve the Patriarch’s objection to the whole marriage. By inexplicably making Shammi a psycho, I believe Syam Pushkaran’s third act resolution did a disservice to his own first and second acts.

A few hours after writing the first draft of this article, I read Syam Pushkaran’s interview with Indian Express. It only served to confuse me even more. For he states that Shammi was a representation of toxic masculinity. Which begs the question: Doesn’t implying he’s mentally ill ultimately undermine what Mr. Pushkaran was hoping to highlight?

I wonder if I’m alone in my criticism. I hope not. I hope someone’s mentioned it to the filmmakers. Because I can’t wait to see what their next movie will be like. If it fixes the sole flaw in Kumbalangi Nights’ script, I think I’ll be beaming once the credits roll.

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