Kumari is a lot of things. There is no question that Nirmal Sahadev’s second directorial is here to be nothing short of Malayalam’s own horror story, but not one built on creepy dolls or houses that want to eat you alive or grave sites that have been hijacked for revenge. This is not one of those stories, instead, what we have presented to us is a story that reminds you of the myths and legends you probably heard from your grandmother. This is a story just like theirs, one where an impressionable young girl is married off to an ancestral home with many dark secrets.
Here’s the difference though, the girl in this story is not helpless.
The women in this house are subservient, but they exercise their own agency. The ancestral home is doomed, to begin with. This is both your typical story, one that ignites your sense of nostalgia, and one that you have heard before but never really paid too much attention to.
If there is one thing Kumari has done exceptionally well, it is its attempt at exploring power dynamics. Unlike the one-sided grandmother tales and folklore we have all grown up listening to, Kumari successfully gives voice to all the characters of the story by navigating and dissecting the power dynamics for the audience. Let us try and break down some of the power structures in the story and how the interweaving of characters and consequences into one another complements this way of storytelling.
The complexity of interweaving a story into another
Let’s think about the basic structure of the story. I will even go as far as starting with the teaser for the movie, where we are told that the story is a fable and it is about a girl. This assertion already creates an image in our minds, we are immediately thinking of an age where there is a divide between the sections of society, where Gods pick sides, women are exploited and unethical practices are overlooked as ordinary. The actual film starts with a grandmother narrating the story of an ancestral family living in the midst of beliefs and customs associated with ghosts and gods, and the supernatural. We shift to another isolated incident in the household that leaves it cursed forever. The scene shifts again to a prosperous house and a dance sequence. Within the first fifteen minutes of the story, so much of the story is already told to us.
The fact that the story is being narrated to a child, means that there is a child-like simplicity to it, which makes it easy for us to take in the information as well. From here, the story works on the theory of action and consequences. While the story uses complex narrative elements, the basic structure is simple, all of our characters, may it be the titular character Kumari, played by Aishwarya Lakshmi, or even one of the unnamed workers on the land, do something, there is a consequence to their action, which drives them forward. What this narrative structure allowed the filmmakers to do was to weave one character’s intentions into the other, thus creating a dichotomy of power. Then, this dichotomy of power is used to drive the story forward.
This is a story about women.
Honestly, this is not a big deal in 2022. There are plenty of films spearheaded by women, but a story rooted in folklore, where women are taking the driving seat, we are all here for it! The story is so intelligently narrated and told to us that one would assume that it is about a patriarchal, ancestral household and the lords of the house and their greed. This is where you need to realize that you are being misled in the best way possible.
Think about Nangakutty, the helpless mother who couldn’t help her loved ones and committed suicide, she finds a way to seek revenge and even right the wrongs that have plagued the home. Kumari becomes the embodiment of an unforgiving mother, a goddess in her own being, fighting to safeguard her child who is being haunted. The tribal woman who is the voice of the chattan, the forest spirit laughing at the lord who has her choke hold, Parijatham, the prostitute who plays a Lady Macbeth-like figure sending adulterous men to their death and Kumari’s sister-in-law who consistently stops herself from getting pregnant are the women who drive the story.
The men are there, they play their cliche roles, advance the plot, and seem important, but if you really sat down and thought about it, this is a movie about the bravery and desperation of women. This assertion of agency by the women in the story disrupts the power dynamics subliminally. Without our consent, the idea of power is ingrained into us, and as the men in the movie consistently screw up, the women retake their agency back, regardless of whatever outside sources they are using, may it be demons or spirits or their beauty.
Kumari is above all a story about power and the abuse of power in the hands of all the wrong people. However, the film is very aware of it: it is entirely aware of the fact that this is a story that has been told too many times and Sahadev does justice to it by not shying away from the shocking aspects of power and how involved it is and was in the society in Kerala. If this is a story about the upper caste and the lower, men and women, about powerful gods and demigods, it is also resonant with what we live in, only the realities are slightly harsher, and there is no magic involved.
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