Kumbalangi nights garnered critical claim and praise for its perceptive portrayal of the lives of four half brothers. Lipin Ram delves deeply into the question of family at the centre of the movie.
What makes a family? For a long time, the social sciences, and anthropology in particular, have answered this question on the basis of two things. First, a shared acknowledgement of genealogy, and second, shared ‘primary’ substances, i.e., blood, bone and semen. 1 In recent times, though, this idea of kinship has come up against its limits both in the West and in places in the ‘Global South’ like India, with same-sex marriage, adoption and surrogate parenthood challenging the existing normative and structural understandings around the institution of family.
Kumbalangi Nights, arguably the best Malayalam movie of 2019 so far, and one of the best to have come out of the ‘renaissance’ underway in the Malayalam film industry in recent years, has the question of family at its heart. This tale of four brothers—Saji, Bonny, Bobby and Franky, who turn out in the end to be each other’s true ‘keepers’ despite their individual travails and mutual conflicts—is remarkable for many reasons. The deftness with which the film weaves its themes—abandonment, masculinity, mental illness and marginality—into the plot is truly praiseworthy. The acting is stellar and the cinematography fully attuned to the island topography of Kumbalangi, where the story takes place. This piece, however, will focus on the question of family, which the script untiringly pursues from the very beginning.
‘How many mummies and daddies do you have?’
Halfway into the film, Bobby, one of the younger brothers, gets asked the above question by Baby, his lover, in the most loving and playful tone one could imagine as the two are lying beside each other in their mangrove rendezvous. And yet, we see that this is a question that deeply affects Bobby, who otherwise goes around flaunting his adolescent insouciance. The scene cuts to Saji, the eldest brother, who tells his psychologist that it ‘gets to all of us’ when people allude to their being born of ‘many fathers’, before giving in to an all-out nose-running wail that is sad and funny in equal measures. ‘The worst house in the panchayath’, as Franky, the youngest brother, likes to say, is missing a patriarch (and female members as well for that matter). Moreover, the brothers are not all born to the same father, or as Shammi, Baby’s hyper-masculine ‘complete man’ of a brother-in-law asserts, they cannot claim to have been born of otta thantha or ‘one father.’ If the constant altercations and fighting between the eldest Saji and others have turned the household into ‘hell’ from within, the absence of a patriarch has rendered the family illegitimate, and the brothers unworthy, to the world outside.
In contrast, Baby comes from a respectable household and a nalla kudumbam [good family], helmed by Shammi, the brother-in-law who gradually plots his way up to the position of the house patriarch. The God Father-like scene where Shammi suavely assumes his new position at the head of the dinner table conveys the evil undertones of this moment marvellously. It is through Shammi that the deep-seated insecurities underlying aggressive and moralising masculinity is revealed, not to mention the eventual eruption of violence that results once his male authority is openly questioned. In the end, as Shammi deals with the challenge to his pathological need to maintain control by injuring and physically restraining the women of his family, the true nature of the ‘good family’ is laid bare in no uncertain terms.
Meanwhile, ‘the worst house in the panchayath’ is beginning to change, as in walk women: Bonny’s African-American girlfriend, the wife of Saji’s recently deceased Tamilian friend along with her newborn child, and eventually Baby as Bobby’s bride. None of them fit the role of the ‘homely woman,’ the curious turn of phrase practically invented by the Indian matrimonial advertisement industry. Bonny’s girlfriend is a racial outsider who doesn’t particularly care about the Shammy brand of Indian virtuousness. The widow of Saji’s friend also is an outsider in her Tamil identity, on top of her failure to adhere to the standards of being a good wife as she leaves her husband’s home ‘too soon’ after the latter’s death in a freak accident. Baby is too outspoken for a ‘family girl’ and has defied male authority to be with her lover. The house, tellingly missing the front door, had at one time been a dumping ground for the ‘unwanted,’ much like the islet it is located in—a known spot for people to abandon their unwanted pet animals in Kumbalangi. The film ends as an unlikely family begins to take form inside the unplastered walls of this house. Outside, the nights of Kumbalangi are as beautiful as ever.
There are many other elements of ‘another family’ that may be retrieved from the film’s plot. Saji and Bonny, for instance, are unrelated by conventional understandings of genealogy, and yet have the thickest of ‘connections’. Bonny, we are told in one of the opening scenes, thinks of his dancing buddies as his family. Yet, all these elements of alterity seem unforced and almost ‘natural’, as the character sketches and plot lines make it clear that they have come into existence out of necessity and not out of—like in some of the recent ‘new wave’ movies in Malayalam—the characters’ progressive convictions. They don’t utter pithy and unlikely-in-everyday-life lines, except when Bobby quotes the wrong dialogue from one such recent movie and gets a bag of popcorn shoved in his face. ‘Sex is not a promise’ 2,is not something Baby wants to hear even in the intimate darkness of a cinema from her lover.
This makes the film all the more powerful and the characters endearing. It is not as if the characters have managed to transcend the morality of the patriarchal family, or even as if they do not want a ‘good family’ like everyone else. They do, but are simply out of luck. In fact, in one of the scenes Bobby expresses exactly this very desire. Desperately trying to make his own family more ‘respectable’ so he could ask for Baby’s hand in marriage, Bobby attempts telling off his brothers who have suddenly filled the house with random women. He fails miserably. His attempt to convince his brothers, saying ‘nalla kudumbangalkk oru samskaram und’ [good families have a certain culture] is brutally trolled by Bonny and smilingly ignored by Saji. Bobby has no choice but to come around and reconcile himself to the odd grouping of men and women in his household, and even reaches out to the Tamilian friend’s widow, now called chechi [elder sister], asking her to stay on as long as she likes.
So, is ‘another family’ possible? Will the house stop breathing like it is used to once the front door is put in place? Will there emerge a patriarch out of the four brothers? Will the women of the household continue to be sources of moral leadership for the lost men, or will the walls close in on them eventually? We don’t know the answers to these questions, and the film certainly doesn’t make any promises. What it does with great perspicacity and imagination is to ask certain questions of the institution of the family, its limits as well as its possibilities. That in itself, we can all agree, is a valuable exercise.
About the Author: Lipin Ram is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at The Graduate Institute, Geneva. His dissertation looks at the anthropological meanings of democratic politics in north Kerala and their implications for a theory of democracy. He has been a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Broad research interests include question of violence, democracy, affect and social theory.