When it hit the screens in February, Kumbalangi Nights received the rare prize of critical and theatrical acclaim.
There are blindingly obvious pitfalls in political correctness. Especially when a mass medium such as cinema becomes a vehicle to appropriate a particular progressive attitude at the cost of another. If political correctness is intended to avoid any implied prejudice, Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights fails miserably.
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Set in a rural landscape near Kochi designed to celebrate Kerala's famed nature endowed beauty, Kumbalangi Nights is supposed to bat for gender equality and justice. It appears to do so remarkably well, however, only with the help of a hidden narrative that treads on dangerous territories. In essence the movie masks its motivation inside a plot ladden with a vicious bias towards the mentally ill.
The ensemble cast of Kumbalangi Nights, the directorial debut of Madhu C Narayanan, is woven together with the singular objective of pitting one bias against the other. Saji (Soubin Shahir), Bobby (Shane Nigam), Bony (Sreenath Bhasi) and Franky (Mathew Thomas) are brothers confined to a corner by a class conscious society. They represent different levels of masculinity. Babymol (Anne Ben), her sister Simi (Grace Antony), Sumisha (Riya Saira) and Nylah (Jasmine Metivier) represent the independent woman ready to offer these men the stability they so badly need.
The film falters when toxic masculinity removed from the brothers finds its way inside Shammy (Fahadh Faasil), husband of Simi like a tsunami hitting the calm waters of Kumbalangi. Syam Pushkaran, who gets the writing credits of the film, assembles a perfect setting to create that surgical transplant of toxic musculinity. While the brothers are reformed, Shammy comes out as mentally ill, the portrayal of a virulent virus that negates all the gains.
The beginning of the film, a football match featuring Franky, is ominous. In the game, Franky selflessly passes the ball for his teammate to score, an echo of Manchester United legend Eric Cantona's famous comment in English director Ken Loach's Looking for Eric (2009). Asked what was the sweetest moment in his career, Cantona says: "It was a pass."
Film buffs praised the film for its moments like Franky's pass. One Twitter user pointed out that Babymol and Bobby were watching Arjun Reddy in a cinema when she slaps him for stealing a kiss. Another invited people to slap him for not having watched the film earlier. Pushkaran, who co-wrote Salt N' Pepper (2011), about a man walking away with the male chef of his potential bride, combines his resources remarkably well for fighting gender inequality, a curse of the so-called progressive Kerala. The film's undoing is his choice of a man suffering a mental illness to carry all that is wrong with the society.
"The connotation is negative," says film critic Saibal Chatterjee. "Mental illness is a disease to be treated. Instead, Shammy becomes an embodiment of all that is wrong with masculinity," he adds. "A filmmaker can't be expected to understand mental illness like a psychiatrist. But you have to be sensitive to the sensibilities of those suffering mental illness." Jawaharlal Nehru University student Vineetha Krishnan agrees: "The excuse is that Shammy is mentally ill so he is doing all these. That is unacceptable. Any so-called normal man could do what he does," says Krishnan, who is pursuing her Ph.D on new Malayalam short stories.
The National Mental Health Survey of India by the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in 2015 found that 150 million Indians above 18 years were likely to be suffering from mental illnesses. "We need a pro-active role from the media to remove the stigma associated with mental illness, the notion that they are all violent and criminals," says Nimhans Dean and Senior Professor Dr. G Gururaj. "Mass mediums like cinema have a major responsibility to convey the message that it is the duty of every one of us to offer the required help to those suffering mental illnesses," adds Dr Gururaj, who specialises in the area of suicide prevention.
Chatterjee says compared to the last century when Hollywood made films with titles like Psycho (1960), there is more awareness about mental illness today. "Hollywood and Bollywood were then full of negative portrayal of characters with mental illnesses," he says. "We didn't know earlier what was bipolar disorder." Both Hollywood and Bollywood have since done better. The low-budget Silver Linings Playbook (2012) - which has Bradley Cooper's character suffering bipolar disorder and Jennifer Lawrence's with borderline personality disorder - and the 2016 Hindi film Dear Zindagi by Gauri Shinde have protagonists seeking therapy.
When it hit the screens in February, Kumbalangi Nights received the rare prize of critical and theatrical acclaim. With the movie now available for streaming, there has been a deluge of accolades on the social media from across the country. That is not the kind of influence the society needs today to help the increasing number of people suffering depression and other mental illnesses. Somewhere in the beginning of the film is a scene where Babymol coaxes Bobby into casting his fishing net wide over the backwaters for the benefit of a group of foreign tourists. It is beautiful. It would be disastrous if mental illness were to be enveloped more in a smear of malice.
Faizal Khan curated India’s first football films festival with artist Riyas Komu at the 2011 International Film Festival of India, Goa. He was the curator of a football films programme in the Artists Cinema section of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014.
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