Imagine wafting down a lagoon on a catamaran with soft sunlight caressing one cheek and the fine spray from fishing nets caressing the other. One shore is heaven and the other is purgatory – you eventually need to decide where to dock but for the next couple of hours you’re just wafting down the lagoon at the pace of life. This is what Shyam Pushakaran and Madhu C. Narayanan achieve through Kumbalangi Nights. The writing, cinematography and, performances are all equally well-crafted on this 2-hour sojourn into the lives and travails of 4 unorthodox brothers and the lives that their lives touch. And in the end, they present a clear opinion of where you probably dock, but leave just enough to question their choice and potentially sympathize with the other side if you so choose.
Heaven is order, precision. It is the blade’s edge surgically removing the single stray hair from a mustache. All rules, including a banal one about not mixing with the locals, are upheld. The letter of the law, not the spirit, reigns. And through this it begets a machine-like quality, one that it unwittingly also imparts to each of its cogs. Everything in its place and a place for everything – it brooks no affront to its sensibilities. Errant soccer balls are to be done away with and replaced with cricket strokes as long as they are clean drives along the ground for four played within nets. Amateur chef Chittappans must be reminded of their place in the hierarchy because, after all, “uthyogam” (a job) is “purusha lakshanam” (the mark of a man). It has a mother so caught up in their devotion that they do not have the emotional bandwidth to dip back into purgatory.
Purgatory is chaos, confusion. There is no sign of a “responsible adult” in sight. Sometimes it leaves you lying on a couch biting just a coconut and jaggery because you do not have the wherewithal to make an appam – or maybe you’re just too lazy to do so. Outsiders have no clear line of sight to your lineage. Its world (the best use of Pharrell’s Happy) comes into focus only after a peg or two because the anxiety it induces would be intolerable otherwise. And yet it has interminable beauty when it does come into focus – fish in a clear stream, butterflies hovering on a flower, fluorescent algae and sweet sounds emanating from the mouth of a mute.
When the twain meet, purgatory finds itself at the mercy of heaven; sometimes with a blade at its throat. After all, that is what the machinery of heaven is designed to do – assert its hegemony over everything else and force people to find their place in its universe. But purgatory has a hidden secret. Filled with broken things it can be redeemed, in fact, it almost has no option but to be redeemed. It can find balance by bringing angel(s) home. It can find irrational ‘love” that is unconstrained by the practical. And despite the lack of anything it has such overwhelming capacity for largesse that the redemption it desires comes from within, but not wholly. Small elements from heaven seep in unbeknownst to purgatory itself. Not in an overt, forceful way, but in a gentle loving way. A girlfriend who is willing to stand her ground and explain what consent is. A wife who forgives a man because of the sum of his actions rather than one freak accident.
Eventually when Shyam and Madhu dock that boat on the purgatory shore, the natural reaction is to side with the position that the film takes. However, we would do well to weigh the heavens and purgatories in our own lives if the film really had an impact on our lives. The heaven and order of a job or the chaos of the passion project? The comfort, knowledge systems of caste and community or the constant personal strife of breaking those folds? The answer as always is floating down that catamaran with sunlight on one cheek and a fine spray on the other. Let’s find balance, my friends, and then let’s grab a rod to go fishing.