Decoding the world of Syam Pushkaran, the critically acclaimed writer of Kumbalangi Nights
Kumbalangi Nights proves Syam Pushkaran is a screenwriter deeply invested in each character and fastidious about every line of the narrative.
In this quick review, we look at the works of one of the most celebrated new wave writers in Malayalam cinema. His journey has been one of slow, careful and sensitive evolution in the art of storytelling. More about Syam Pushkaran’s work.
The recently released Kumbalangi Nights revolved around four brothers in a quaint town in Kerala and despite how dysfunctional and volatile they appear to be, at no point does our mind stray towards the possibility of something deeper defining this fraternal relationship. The writing is so crafty and original that we are almost overlooking what is a simple logical inference. It also talks a lot about the scriptwriter — Syam Pushkaran, a writer deeply invested in each character, fastidious about every line and length of the narrative and hell bent on separating the superficial from the real.
Pushkaran has to be the most deliberate voice of change in Malayalam cinema today. A writer, who in many ways is the new age MT Vasudevan Nair, someone who brings drama into the ordinary. His journey began six years ago, with a hugely entertaining food/rom-com, Salt N Pepper, directed by Aashiq Abu (with whom he has collaborated in six out of the 11 films he has written).
Salt N Pepper (2011) had a man and woman who discovers love in their early 40s and a parallel track about a couple in their 20s grappling with their own love story. Food is delectably woven into the narrative — a dosa triggers the romance and a decadent old cake recipe smoothens the climax. It was one of the earlier films that facilitated the new wave in Malayalam cinema. The tone was breezy, free of celluloid clichés, and had a hero and heroine who looked and sounded ordinary and relatable for the postmodern generation.
The journey from Salt N Pepper to Kumbalangi Nights has been a constantly evolving process of self-doubt, gross miscalculation, rewriting typecasts, cinematic grammar and bringing radical ideas on board. Says co-writer Dileesh Nair, who collaborated with Pushkaran in many films, “It’s about communicating on the same wavelength. Usually the first set of discussions will be about how the film will form, then how to make the scenes different. The writing process is more like making a blueprint — about sequencing, giving it an order. We write a scene, combine it effectively and of course have healthy disagreements.”
22 Female Kottayam (2012), loosely based on Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Haseena Thi, which Pushkaran wrote with Abhilash Kumar, is a revenge drama centered around a nurse (Rima Kallingal) who, after being pimped and tricked into imprisonment by her boyfriend, bobbitises him. This is one of the early instances of the writer attempting abortively to break stereotypes. In Ek Haseena Thi, her vengeance stems from a point after she was framed by the boyfriend while 22FK makes it a morality issue, as she only takes the revenge route after being physically brutalised twice apart from being framed by her boyfriend. Also, Sarika’s (of Ek Haseena Thi) path to revenge is designed with a ruthless scheming that is not so onerously gendered, especially the climax where she leaves him in a cave infested with rats.
But in 22 FK, by assuming that bobbitising a man is the ultimate tool of revenge it reinforced the old theory around manhood. The writing in the end is soppy, toning down the narrative into a chick flick, as a thoroughly bemused Cyril promises to “catch her later.”
Da Thadiya (co-written by Dileesh Nair and Abhilash Kumar) was a generic commentary on obesity, with an unsurprisingly positive end note. Sethulakshmi (co-written with Muneer Ali), one of the stories of 5 Sundarikal, had a disturbing narrative on child abuse, while Idukki Gold (co-written with Dileesh Nair), about four elderly friends set in the backdrop of weed, had an obvious Quentin Tarantino inspiration.
Syam showed the first surge of promise with the Amal Neerad-directed Iyobinte Pusthakam, a fictional postmodern period drama set in the green lands of Munnar. A very traditional revenge tale about Iyob and his sons, it was sprinkled with love, lust, betrayal, violence and vengeance. The writing had a succinctness and originality, and the characters, though drawn from a typical good versus evil blueprint, had interesting accounts, subtle punchlines and were rooted to the milieu.
Rani Padmini revolved around two women, with their names reflective of their character traits — bold Rani and naïve Padmini. Two things were achieved in the narrative — passing the Bechdel test and crafting a heartwarming bond between the women. But Pushkaran falters in the climax (where she easily forgives the husband who signs a mutual divorce petition in a bid to further his personal goals), like he later admitted in an interview — “I think I messed up big time with the climax. It was an absurd closure.”
The next film, Maheshinte Prathikaram, was his attempt to unlearn a lot of things from his previous seven films. It was his first solo film as a script writer, where he unleashed a new cinematic syntax in the process — imbibing the nuance of a town/village and its people into the narrative, stripping the characters of greasepaint and artifice, subverting and deflating a lot of clichés and gender roles and a leisurely humorous wordplay. The film was built on a simple thread — a young man is humiliated on his street, loses his chappals in the fight and vows to put it back only after getting even with the enemy. “It was meant to move along the lines of a Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, Kallan Pavithran or Panchavadi Palam. In fact, it sounded like a comedy version of Kireedam,” recalls cinematographer Shyju Khalid. Pushkaran not only captures the essence of Idukki but also introduces a line-up of unforgettable characters into the story. He reroutes the traditional story and stages it with a lot of originality, bringing drama into the ordinary. It is very tangible and raw. “Local stories should always tell international stories,” has been his constant refrain.
Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, where he wrote the dialogues, again spoke to this rootedness.
Then he tried a love story in Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi. It is about Appu and Mathan who are fastened to each other’s souls. They do not subscribe to a fairy tale romance — on the contrary, Mathan has betrayed her trust on more than one occasion yet fate keeps bringing them back together. It is a weird love affair — wildly passionate, deep, and volatile in turns. Nair who co-wrote the film recalls the most celebrated dialogue in the film, where the heroine after a night of passionate lovemaking tells the hero, who takes it as a cue to settle down, that “sex is not a promise.” “It was Syam’s idea. In fact, that was the most discussed scene between us. We felt that was the only way to ascertain her stand. She is an urban girl of today who has been cheated before by him. He has also helped her during a particularly trying audition. Anything less than that would make her sound like a cheater. True, it’s a very male dialogue but this is her perspective too. We didn’t want her to be just a typical heroine who follows the hero around.”
It is also interesting to note that Pushkaran has always worked within the comfort of friends — be it Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan or Madhu C Narayanan.
“The magic word is communication. We fill in each other’s sentences. We are all writing the script at the same time, update it every three days and check developments. It’s like the film is already in their heads. It’s a great example to follow for someone who wants this kind of collaboration,” admits Nair.
Between Salt N Pepper and Mayaanadhi, the big change, according to Nair, has been that while the first film had a written script, they had not written a single scene for Mayaanadhi. “Just the order was there. Most of the dialogues were improvised with actors. We spruced it up on the sets. That works with us better as the actors are aware of the character’s growth. A conventional method won’t work here. This is our method. A script is just a filmmaker’s blueprint.”
Kumbalangi Nights is his second independent film as a screenwriter, and it has already wowed the critics and audiences alike. It again revolves around a simple traditional thread — the tale of four brothers in a quaint village called Kumbalangi. It probably has Pushkaran’s best and most intriguing character sketches. “How can you begin a story where the hero is already perfect? He has to flawed, grey, then only will there be a satisfactory arc. He should get better in the course of the narration,” Pushkaran had said in an interview. It is also the film where he has successfully overhauled the celebrated alpha male hero by making him the antagonist. Navamy, film critic with The Hindu, writes,“His writing has always been nuanced, but in KN he gives this soft, lyrical texture to a storyline so simple and bleak. And after the famous ‘sex is not a promise’ line in Mayaanadhi he goes a step further in redefining gender roles when a girl says it's not possible to have multiple fathers. We have seen all our superstars delivering that mass dialogue in various films, twirling their moustaches and declaring that they are born to a single father in an attempt to establish their superior lineage. Here the dialogue is a tight slap in the face of patriarchy, represented by the 'complete man'.”
Director Madhu C Narayanan talks about how involved he is with each character — "Syam has been discussing Shammi with Fahadh right from Maheshinte Prathikaram. His evolution and changes were constantly in discussion. They would call and exchange notes. By the time the shoot started, Fahadh had thoroughly understood Shammi. That works wonders for an actor.”
Today, Pushkaran already has an ISI stamp on him. And most importantly, he does not seem to be resting on his past laurels, showing a rare sensitivity and humility in his writing. Malayalam cinema seems to have found its groove with him.
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