Tuesday 9 June 2020

My streaming gem: "Kumbalangi Nights" (Guardian 02/06/20)

One of 2019’s biggest Malayalam hits, Kumbalangi Nights forms a superior example of those lay-of-the-land movies that build a world and properly study their characters before foisting anything so urgent, vulgar or trifling as a plot upon us. At its centre sit four varyingly useless brothers, stranded without parents on the banks of a river winding through the titular Keralan tourist hotspot. The two oldest are introduced at one another’s throats, where they’ve apparently been for most of their lives: these are Saji (Soubin Shahir), a sentimental, oft-shirtless bruiser, and Bobby (Shane Nigam), a mop-topped slacker who’s renounced weed on the grounds it “makes you think, and I am not the thinking type”, a self-insight he goes on to prove with his clumsy pawing of sweetheart Baby (Anna Ben).

A third sibling, the mute and melancholy Boney (Sreenath Bhasi) has already bailed and left these two to each other’s devices, partly because he hasn’t the voice to raise, partly because he’s tired of the pair’s bullshit. The youngest, teenage Franky (Mathew Thomas), shows a degree of potential – he’s a team player on the soccer pitch, has a scholarship awaiting him, and appears rather charmingly beguiled by the opposite sex – but we might well wonder whether this will be allowed to coalesce into anything more substantial, given the clownishness and toxicity of his housemates. Calmly and naturalistically, the film sets down a gauntlet for these bros to run: can any of them grow up and become a man without taking on the worst characteristics of those around them?

Keen as they might be to run their mouths, the film they’re in – written by Syam Pushkaran, and directed by Madhu Narayanan – is instead characterised by a thoughtful silence: it transports us to one of this planet’s quieter, prettier spots, and never feels the need to overcompensate with score, action or frantic jabber, allowing scenes to present as reflective or stilled, like the Kumbalangi waterways. Beneath this placid surface, however, there’s a fair bit going on, not least a tacit understanding of the wider imbalances at play in this patriarchal neck of the woods. These brothers have been afforded a certain freedom and power, but they haven’t fully comprehended what to do with it, and are thus prone to abusing it somehow.

Much of the onscreen activity could be defined as relaxed human comedy, but we’re constantly aware how close some of it comes to a knife-edge. It’s literal when Bobby submits to a shave while asking his putative brother-in-law, the uptight barber Shammy (Fahadh Faasil), for Baby’s hand in marriage; more metaphorical when Saji comes round from a botched suicide attempt to be offered not counselling, but a slap in the face from a police inspector and the fates alike. These guys can be good together – Pushkaran carefully punctuates the squabbling with moments of genuine fraternal camaraderie – but for two-thirds of the film, we’re just waiting for one of them to put their foot in any given situation, if not to rashly dive in two-footed.

That we’re never disheartened or repulsed entirely is down to Narayanan’s excellent ensemble, particularly his leads, who temper the worst aspects of maleness with vivid flickers of promise that suggest we may still witness a positive outcome. Crucially, no-one strides onto screen with the conventional bearing of a hero; these actors never radiate that vanity, so we believe in them as the kind of blundering dumbos anybody possessed of a penis can be in the absence of proper guidance. Narayanan’s direction assumes a forgiving quality: it’s never indulgent, however becalmed matters seem, but it insists on allowing the brothers time and space, in the hope they’ll see the error of their ways and take some form of responsibility before the credits roll.

The final third – in which women cross the boys’ threshold, obliging them to adapt accordingly – initially plays a touch gentle after all the roughhousing, but it feels healthier, too: a detox that enables the brothers to reconnect with emotions they walled off after their abandonment. They’ll need to, because this surprising, edifying entertainment has one final twist, which has as much to do with genre as it does with the characters we’ve spent the better part of two hours getting to know. That’s best left for you to discover, but it’s a development that makes explicit the question underpinning all Kumbalangi Nights’ inquiries: if our homes and our movies can change shape for the better, why on earth can’t the men who inhabit them?

Kumbalangi Nights is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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