By Pranay Dewani Jul. 21, 2019
After the release of Kabir Singh, everyone had one question on their minds: Could movies really depict toxic masculinity without glorifying it? The answer lies in Kumbalangi Nights, a Malayalam film where toxic masculinity isn’t the hero, but is its villain.
In the aftermath of the Kabir Singh fiasco a couple of weeks back, I was having a conversation with a friend about whether or not a film should be allowed to portray and joke about “toxic masculinity”. My friend was vehemently against it; he believed that under the guise of labelling these portrayals of dangerous men as “raw” and “honest”, these films get away by giving its “hero” alpha moments full of guttural, impulsive and violent reactions. And they don’t comment on the consequences of this harmful behaviour. I nodded my head in agreement, adding that Kabir Singh was perhaps, every incel’s wet dream.
But later, the question he asked, lingered in my head: Could movies really depict toxic masculinity without glorifying it? Over the years, mainstream cinema – take Tere Naam for example – has been insistent on making one believe that might not be possible. But I found my answer in Madhu C Narayanan’s debut feature, Kumbalangi Nights, a film that found a second life when Prime Video picked it up last week.
Set in a fishing town near Kochi, Kumbalangi Nights is divided into two camps: One camp consists of four brothers – Bobby, Saji, Bonny and Frankie – living in a cramped, unconstructed house without a door. The brothers are in a constant fight with each other as well as with their pasts. According to Frankie (Mathew Thomas), the youngest of the four brothers, it is the worst house in the neighborhood because it is a metaphorical wasteland of conflict. They’re essentially living in a world without a woman (their mother left the house after their father’s death).
As evidenced from the Kabir Singh discourse, the problem isn’t that filmmakers seem to be competing against each other for telling more and more stories about violent men. But that in all these stories, these men, despite their violence, are allowed to be heroes.
On the other side of the backwaters, is a family of three women – Babymol, Simmy and Sathi, – with seemingly happy lives that is soon to be shaken by the arrival of a masculine figure in their house, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil). Shammi, the film’s creepy villain, is the best embodiment of how the standards of masculinity set by a patriarchal society is intertwined with violence. Deluded about his masculinity that’s rooted in a freakish control of people, especially women, Shammi announces himself as “The Complete Man” endowed with the responsibility to take care of three “hapless” women.
Understandably, Narayanan builds on the sharp contrast between the two camps and questions the audience’s perception of masculinity and the idea of male identity through the eyes of its women. In a scene, Bobby (Shane Nigam), the younger brother tries to kiss his girlfriend Babymol (Anna Ben) in a theatre despite her not consenting to it. When she slaps him, Bobby storms away, yelling, “I am a man!” and leaves the theatre in a fit of rage. Not only does Kumbalangi Nights not fall into the temptation of giving Bobby’s transgressions a pass or playing it up for comic relief. But it also provides a context for it – a kind of masculinity that thrives on the desire to own women.
In yet another scene, the director subverts one of the oldest tropes of mainstream Malayalam cinema: The powerful elder brother who can never be vulnerable. Saji (Soubin Shahir), the eldest brother, considers himself responsible for the unexpected death of his friend Murugan and is almost on the verge of a meltdown when he turns to Frankie and says, “I think I am losing it. I need help. Can you take me to a doctor?” It’s a cry for help that most Malayalam films don’t often afford their macho leads.
This is perhaps the biggest achievement of Kumbalangi Nights. That it provides a counter-argument to whether films should portray violent men. In fact, it offers a roadmap. As evidenced from the Kabir Singh discourse, the problem isn’t that filmmakers seem to be competing against each other for telling more and more stories about violent men. But that in all these stories, these men, despite their violence, are allowed to be heroes. And instead of decoding their toxic traits, these films disguise them as harmless “flaws” that do little to expand our understanding of what breeds toxic masculinity.
Kumbalangi Nights does the opposite: It forces men and women, to stop, stare, and contend with the burdens of toxic masculinity. It eloquently dissects, critiques, and punishes the male identity that deems itself superior. Kumbalangi Nights then, is all about the consequences that every other film shirks. As this Firstpost piece points out, Kumbalangi Nights “not only succeeds in overthrowing the celebrated alpha male but also points out that in theory he is the villain of the story.”
Are our films ready for this new chapter?