The Hidden Feminist Agency in ‘Kumbalangi Nights’


“She could have come for only ten days. What kind of mother is she?!”

“You shouldn’t curse her. She suffered a lot because of us.”

“This house lost its life the moment mother walked out.”

The weight of the absent mother hangs heavy in Madhu C Narayanan’s directorial debut ‘Kumbalangi Nights’. We hear plenty about her, but never from her. In a film, that runs for over two hours, she appears for a few seconds in the beginning and a few minutes towards the end. Her ‘absent presence’ is used to explain much of the compulsions and behaviour of her sons — the film’s protagonists — but her own motivations remain unexplained. And it’s not just her. In contrast to the well-written and nuanced male characters, the women get surprisingly short shrift.

Set in a small fishing village called Kumbalangi, this is a story of four half brothers — Saji, Bonny, Bobby, and Franky — who turn their lives around while confronting their individual dilemmas. Franky, the youngest and the most responsible, is a footballer with a scholarship. The other three spend their days trading barbs and blows and whiling away time. The ramshackle house they share has an air of abandonment; the estranged brothers find it difficult to come together and share a meal on the remembrance day of their dead father.

The stasis is broken when they enter relationships that prove transformational. In resolving the conflicts that arise in these relationships, despair gives way to reconciliation, redemption, and hope. Bobby, played by Shane Nigam, falls in love with his neighbour Baby Mol, played by Anna Ben. Saji, the eldest brother, played by Shoubin Shahir, invites the pregnant wife of a friend to live with them, whose death he blames himself for. Bonny, played by Sreenath Bhasi, starts dating the American tourist, Nyla, and brings her home when she is forced to quit her home-stay. To complete the motley cast of characters, the man who throws her out, Shammi, played by Fahadh Faasil, is Baby’s brother-in-law (he is married to her sister Simi), the family’s patriarch and the main source of tension.

It’s no surprise that the four brothers are the best-written characters and take up most space in a narrative that is essentially about them. But the women are essential to the script, taking the story forward and ushering in the climax. And yet, we come to know them only through the narrative arcs of the male protagonists. No prizes for guessing that Kumbalangi Nights won’t pass the Bechdel test by a long shot.

It’s a good thing then, that cultural texts lend themselves to multiple readings. And seen through a feminist lens, another reading of Kumbalangi Nights is possible — one in which the women are not without agency within the confines of their narrowly-sketched characters. The most obvious is Baby, who is straightforward and single-minded in her pursuit of Bobby. This means she is limited to playing the ‘love interest’. But even within this framing, she is the only one who simultaneously challenges casteist, religious and patriarchal norms.

Being fully aware that the relationship with Bobby won’t pass muster in her middle class Hindu family — he occupies the location of the subaltern, being Christian and poor, with little money and even fewer prospects — she resolutely goes about trying to make it happen. When Shammi refuses to allow the match, and Bobby is quick to fold, it is she who confronts them both. She is unapologetically defiant when she challenges Shammi, quietly assertive when she tries to get her sister on her side, and in equal parts frank and guileless, when she coaxes Bobby to not give up.

Her sister Simi is the amenable wife who agrees with her husband on almost everything. Almost till the end, she is terrified of him and serves as the perfect foil to his threatening, menacing presence. Her agency comes through a sisterly act of solidarity. She gives away Baby’s plans to elope, but when Shammi corners and threatens her sister, she breaks character and confronts him, setting off the film’s climax in the process.

The most straightforward rebellious energy in ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ comes, rather predictably, from the American tourist, Nyla, who does not hesitate to give Shammi a piece of her mind when he throws her out of the home-stay after he spies on her and finds Bonny in her room. This violation of her privacy is treated with an almost comic indulgence, quickly dismissed and forgotten.

There is one final story of feminist agency that is barely told and mostly left to our imagination. As the brothers reminisce and bicker about their absent mother, we learn that the estrangement they experience has to do not only with the death of their father but also abandonment by their mother. We are told that soon after her husband deserts her, she and her two children begin to live with Saji’s father. After he dies, she leaves home to seek refuge in religion. When we do see her in a blink-and-it’s-gone scene, the brothers try to convince her to return home and help them replicate some version of a socially acceptable family and secure Bobby’s match with Baby.

She declines. The narrative hints at a past filled with pain and trauma but finally leaves her motives unexplained. But this gap also opens up the space to interpret her actions as a refusal of social and familial conventions, heteronormative marriage, and the norms of motherhood. Her ‘absent presence’ tells a parallel story in which she follows her own course, and in doing so, rejects the very norms of motherhood that implicitly cast her as a failure for leaving her sons, without accounting for what may have triggered it.

Of course, these expressions of agency are not without consequences. The missing mother’s actions are scrutinised and found lacking, including by one of her sons. For their defiance, Baby and Simi are violently beaten up and locked up by Shammi. In the end, the movie falls back on a predictable rescue act as the four brothers together take on Shammi to stop the abuse. Even for a film that is ‘forgetful’ of its female characters, this final act is a letdown. Having, consciously or unconsciously, made room for these assertions of agency, Kumbalangi Nights then goes about making this agency precarious and irrelevant.

The women need to be ‘saved’ for the male characters to redeem themselves. They are crucial facilitators in this journey toward redemption but not deserving of their own stories. No doubt, this is a punch to the gut. But despite these limitations and erasures, even making possible these moments of agency, defiance, and solidarity may, in itself, be a small victory.

Something that offers up feminist hope.

This article was originally published on Feminism in India.

Feminist researcher-writer and journalist. Just completed a Master’s degree in gender studies at SOAS and currently (anxiously) dreaming of a PhD. She/her.

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