Kumbalangi Nights movie review: A new breakthrough in Malayalam cinema

Kumbalangi Nights movie review: The movie is primarily about three young men and their school-going brother living a pathetic life in an incomplete hut in a small island near Kumbalangi on the Western coast of the state, which otherwise looks breathtaking.
If the “parallel cinema” of the 1980s heralded a brief compromise between the mutually exclusive commercial and arthouse genres in Kerala, a new crop of filmmakers in the state have now established a brand-new form that breaks the age-old generic stereotypes. Their movies have no similarity to any form that existed in the state before and they are increasingly drawing inspiration from contemporary international cinema.

Kumbalangi Nights (The nights of Kumbalangi), which released this week, is a brilliant example of this new genre and how it’s maturing. It has no formulaic pretensions of arthouse movies that brought laurels to the state for a long time, or doesn’t overtly try to be mainstream to attract viewers, but ends up being highly successful, both in terms of art and commerce.Kumbalangi Nights is not the first breakthrough in the generic transformation that Malayalam cinema is currently witnessing, but is certainly a movie that has moved closer to truthfulness and perfection. It’s rooted in reality, deals with the lives of the subaltern that both the arthouse and mainstream movies have made look contrived, addresses a number of contemporary socio-political issues in a highly nuanced way and is a moving essay on human relationships, loss and redemption. What makes it special or rather endearing is that despite its dark milieu, it’s a hugely transformative movie.

In the guise of contemporary cinema, a lot of city-based youngsters, mostly from the state’s movie capital of Kochi, have been making quite a number of thug-films, films that deal with the hard life of the urban underclass depicting a lot of violence, foul language and even sexual permissiveness with practically no perspective or purpose. Their themes mostly centre around the urban lumpen, contract killers (called quotation gangs in local parlance), slums, sex workers and unemployed youth, with some political colour and Sufi Rock thrown in to make them look both intense and cool. Although many of them were celebrated because they looked different, they mostly appeared inspired by City of God and were similar in form and substance. But Kumbalangi Nights breaks away from this new stereotype.The movie is primarily about three young men and their school-going brother living a pathetic life in an incomplete hut in a small island near Kumbalangi on the Western coast of the state, which otherwise looks breathtaking. For people in the mainland, it’s a shit-hole that they use to dump their rubbish in. The only economic engagement the stranded inhabitants of the island can undertake is fishing, ancillary work for tourism and probably some unskilled labour in the city. Closely associated with their lives is another family, from where one of the boys find his love-interest.

Except the youngest boy, who is a footballer supported by a state scholarship and hence exposed to a marginally better quality of life, the men practically do nothing and seem to be stuck in a socio-cultural stasis. Given their depressing family background of estrangement and abandonment, they are captives of extreme low self-esteem and self-stigma and are socially immobile. The only shimmer of hope is the school-boy because he has access to education and hence is hopeful about life. Things change when relationships happen, which lead to both conflicts as well as liberation and finally despair gives way to hope and a possibly a life-affirming freedom from the past.

Kumbalangi Nights is also a truly subaltern movie with unambiguous, but understated, politics. No other movie in the recent past has dealt with subaltern lives so genuinely the way it has done. Its principal characters come from the low strata of society, both socially and economically, and are victims of self-rejection. The family of the girl that they deal with too is not from ‘upper class,’ but the social gradient between them looks pronounced because of the very low baseline. And they too are victims of a different kind.

The movie is extremely detailed and hence is an authentic portrayal of human lives in the squalid island and their surrounding nature that’s an extension of their being. There are a number of characters that move you, that make you think and add to the overall milieu of the story. The sense of loss and helplessness that the movie conveys is heartbreaking.

What’s also striking about the movie is the quality of its writing and its contiguity with the surroundings, which is brilliantly captured by cinematographer Shyju Khalid. The importance of love within the family, the brutality of patriarchy that even an eccentric man can exert, and the healing power of human touch and compassion are vividly depicted by both the writer Syam Pushakaran and director Madhu C Narayanan. All the actors have done a splendid job in shedding their real persona and assuming unfamiliar lives as truthfully as they could. For Madhu C Narayanan, it’s a remarkable debut indeed.