*Major spoilers ahead.
In a land beyond where kittens are left to die and the village goes to take a shit, in a land which is surrounded by silken green but only has prickly cactus growing in its yard, live four brothers - Saji (Soubin Shahir), Bonny (Sreenath Bhasi), Bobby (Shane Nigam), and Frankie (Mathew Thomas).
The grungy house, in the beautiful small town of Kumbalangi, has a picture of Mother Mary looking down at infant Jesus, but the woman they call mother has left them. Frankie, the youngest, who sorely misses her, steps into her shoes. He makes fish curry for his brothers, does the laundry, tries to keep house, even as his older brothers quarrel and beat each other up.
At the beginning of the film, Frankie's friends ask him if they can visit his home. However, he tells them that everyone there has chickenpox. It's a white lie, but it also reveals his feelings about his home, a place he considers cursed.
Kumbalangi Nights, directed by Madhu C Narayanan and written by Syam Pushkaran, is about the aimless men we see around us all the time, who drown their existential angst in alcohol - because they can, and nobody will ask them any questions. The women pick up after them, trudging on resolutely because they have to. There are mouths to be fed, school fees to be paid, and roofs to be fixed. And if they don't do it, they will be held responsible. They perform the jobs of provider and nurturer, though it kills them little by little every day.
So, you have Bobby who won't fish for money, but will do it if you ask him as a favour. Saji who mooches off Murugan's ironing business, only because he once helped him, Bonny who hangs out with a music and dance group and stays away from his family. Only Frankie is determined to work hard and make something of his life, winning a scholarship which will keep him in school.
But despite the freedom that their masculinity gives them, they're unable to find happiness or get anywhere close to it. They can only communicate in barbs and break into violence when they're overwhelmed. In other words, they don't know what to do with their masculinity.
But Shammy, played by the brilliant Fahadh, does. In his introductory scene, he's standing before a mirror in his bathroom and admiring his reflection. He runs a hair salon along with his brother, Shyju (Ansal), and is narcissistic about his moustache, touching it and shaping it several times a day. When he sees a bindhi on the mirror, he removes it, and says to himself, "Raymond, the complete man".
The unexpected line, delivered by an actor who convinces you of the character's self-love, is comic. But Shammy isn't a funny man at all. Each time he appears on screen, you feel icy pinpricks run down your spine. But why? Shammy doesn't do anything that men in Malayalam cinema haven't done before - he shouts at the boys who play football outside his house; he likes to put down men who cook, pointing out that such tasks are meant for women; he takes pride in being at the head of the table, assuming the role of guardian and saviour of the home.
He's the only man in a household with three women - two sisters and their widowed mother. As Simi's (Grace Anthony) husband, he believes he's responsible for their honour. Men like these have appeared on screen numerous times and we've barely thought about their characterisation because it's normalised on screen, and in real life. But each time Shammy makes such a move, Sushin Shyam's background score turns menacing. The camera (Shyju Khalid) focuses on Shammy's glacial eyes which contradict his wide smile, and we feel dread creeping into our hearts.
Most importantly, we're also shown how the women around Shammy respond to him. Where earlier films have shown women characters to be grateful, proud, and even expressing more affection towards a man for "caring" about them in such a way, the women in Shammy's life respond with unease and defiance. Simi's fear is palpable, though Shammy hardly raises his voice or hits her. "Enna moley?" he asks affectionately, each time he crosses a line. Their mother, too, is afraid of this strange man who blows hot and cold. However, Baby (Anna Ben), Simi's sister, is uncomfortable with the extent to which he intrudes, but she isn't to be cowed down by him.
So far, we have seen patriarchy normalised, validated, and glorified on screen. In a few rare instances, it has been questioned, sometimes broken down. But in Kumbalangi Nights, patriarchy is identified as a sickness, a malady that destroys and must be curtailed. The Complete Man, who is repulsed by the feminine, and who harbours a deep sense of misogyny, needs help. He is not normal.
In 2016, Karthik Subbaraj's Tamil film Iraivi attempted to depict the effects of toxic masculinity and patriarchy on the lives of women, told through male narratives. But by denying its women characters their agency and elevating them instead to the status of "goddess" (what the title means), Iraivi only managed to reiterate stereotypes about men and women, putting them into neat boxes.
Kumbalangi Nights does not make that mistake. All through the film, the women make their presence felt. Be it Sumisha (Riya Saira) who finds her unlikely boyfriend hot, or Baby who pursues her crush Bobby, or the African American woman who kisses Bonny right on the lips to prove a point to Shammy.
The film also does not attempt to make women same as the men to frame an argument about equality. And more importantly, it does not make all women the same either. When Sathi (Sheela Rajkumar) refuses to file a case against Saji, it is because she sees the futility of doing so; she is practical, the way many women are because they need to be. When Frankie sees her coming on the boat, her head covered, and cradling her newborn in her arms, his eyes light up. It's a shot that reminds you of the Mother Mary picture that Frankie looks at when he enters his home at the beginning of the film.
But we also have a Leelamma, who refuses to visit her children's home, despite them making a request. And interestingly, she isn't berated for making that choice. Families, Kumbalangi Nights says, can be formed even if you don't come with one - with strangers, people who walk into your life without notice, and others who choose you over their own.
It is the women who rescue the men from their spiral into self-destruction, so towards the end, when the four brothers attempt to rescue them from Shammy's mayhem, it doesn't look like the usual heroes-saving-the-world mission.
We're shown the women bound, their mouths sealed shut, their faces bruised - and it isn't only about the moment, it symbolises what Complete Men have done to them, for centuries. And fittingly, it is the other men, the ones who were saved by the women, who capture the monster and set him to rest. It isn't heroism, it's reciprocation.
An acknowledgement of the wealth that the women have brought into their world, making the prickly cactus in the yard bloom at last.