The Kumbalangi Nights Phenomenon: One small step for Mollywood, a giant leap for Indian cinema 

Anna MM Vetticad

Apr 30, 2019 13:25:01 IST

It is now in its 12th week in Kerala movie theatres despite the tsunami effect that Avengers: Endgame has had on most small films, it played for 7 weeks each in Chennai and Bangalore, 6 weeks in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and 5 weeks in the National Capital Region – this is the kind of pan-India spread and longevity that Kollywood, Tollywood and Bollywood’s flamboyant star-laden big-banner ventures hope for but rarely get. Yet the film we speak of here is not a mega project from one of India’s three largest industries, but a little gem called Kumbalangi Nights from the comparatively small Malayalam film industry a.k.a. Mollywood.

The Kumbalangi Nights Phenomenon: One small step for Mollywood, a giant leap for Indian cinema 

Still from Kumbalangi Nights

Made on a budget of Rs 6.5 crore, Kumbalangi Nights sold its overseas rights for Rs 1.5 crore and had grossed Rs 27.89 crore by April 4 from the box-office across India, according to its producers – it is likely to cross trade pundits’ earlier expectations that it would close at Rs 30 crore-plus. Kumbalangi Nights has none of the grandiose dialogues and lionising camera angles that characterise films starring Mammootty and Mohanlal who continue to dominate Mollywood and rake in big bucks in far larger quantities. Its appeal lies instead in its simplicity and endearing slice-of-life tone mirroring the low-key tenor and realism of the cinema that some observers have come to see as a Malayalam New Wave of the past decade.

These films have been varied in their ambition, storylines and scale but have in common their desire to keep it real, to capture the flavour of the people and the fragrance of the soil in which they are set. Such as in that moment in Kumbalangi Nights in which the curly-haired Babymol (Anna Ben) shakes her head ever so slightly sideways in vintage Malayali style, as she tells her friend in a sing-song Malayalam accent: “Bobby and Baby – those names would look so good on a wedding card, would they not?

Or later when Babymol has a tiff with Bobby (Shane Nigam) who storms off and boards a boat to escape her, at which point she yells across the pristine water: “I have found a name for a film about my life – Oolaye Premichcha Pennkutty (The Girl Who Fell For An Idiot).” And in the background of that soundscape ruled by stillness and quiet, we hear the boatman giggle.

Everyday lines such as these spoken by Baby & Co. have attained iconic status among audiences in the nearly three months since Kumbalangi Nights’ release. Their allure comes from their ability to transport viewers to the Kerala of reality, peopled by individuals and communities that tourists can expect to bump into on a visit, unlike the make-believe world of larger-than-life Mollywood ventures.

Kumbalangi Nights revolves around brothers Saji, Bonny, Bobby and Frankie from the rural island of Kumbalangi on the outskirts of Kochi. The siblings have a testy relationship. When their paths cross with Baby, her sister Simi and autocratic brother-in-law Shammy, warmth and a parallel discomfort are followed by self-loathing, conflict, mayhem, and finally, redemption and reconciliation.

“I was absolutely charmed by the story of a dysfunctional family like no other and the setting,” says journalist Aseem Chhabra, director of the New York Indian Film Festival who divides his time between India and the US. “The sense of simplicity appealed to me. And gosh, it was so romantic.”

Still from Thithi

Still from Thithi

Humour, socio-cultural detailing and unobtrusive political statements are the qualities that have made Kumbalangi Nights a darling of critics and viewers. Collections apart, the film has acquired a pan-India cult following comparable to the respect earned by the Tamil film Aaranya Kaandam (2011), Thithi (Kannada) and Sairat (Marathi), both from 2016, and Malayalam cinema’s own Angamaly Diaries (2017).

This though is not an account of Kumbalangi Nights’ success alone, but a chronicle of the position at which Indian cinema finds itself right now as exemplified by the journey of this particular film.

Although the exhibition sector nationwide has opened up considerably in recent years, vast tracts headquartered in Delhi and Mumbai continue to treat non-Hindi Indian cinema as subordinate to Bollywood and Hollywood. This pro-Bollywood/Hindi slant led the Maharashtra government, for instance, in 2015 to make it mandatory for the state’s multiplexes to slot at least one Marathi film during post-noon hours.

Tollywood’s Baahubali franchise strategically surmounted this Bollywood bias by getting Bollywood stalwart Karan Johar on board as a presenter-distributor of its Hindi dubbed versions. It was a giant-sized project anyway, but Johar’s association with it made it even bigger because of his clout with northern and western Indian theatres and with the ‘national’ media that is otherwise indifferent to Telugu cinema.

Despite the self-defeating resistance from the exhibition sector that contradicts its own expansion efforts, a Kumbalangi Nights was inevitable for Mollywood on a landscape where scores of viewers nationwide are demanding more than they have been served in previous decades and the snail’s-paced leviathans of India’s film industries – producers, distributors and exhibitors – have been gradually waking up to that demand.

In that sense, Kumbalangi Nights is the right film at the right place at the right time.

Leading the confluence of factors that has led to its triumph is the journey of Malayalam cinema along two co-existing tracks. On the one hand Mollywood churns out bombastic big-budget films like this summer’s Madhuraraja starring Mammootty and the Mohanlal-starrer Lucifer that have created a storm at turnstiles in Kerala and among Malayali fans of these stars outside the state. On the other hand are mood films occupying the same plane as Angamaly Diaries and Kumbalangi NightsUstad Hotel, Kammatipaadam, Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Take Off, Mayaanadhi, Eeda and Koode among them – that have in the past 10 years or so sustained Mollywood’s nationwide reputation as a maker of quality realistic cinema that does not necessarily head off into overly artsy, esoteric or dreary territory. Their middle-of-the-road nature – thoughtful yet entertaining in varying ways – has earned them a loyal following not just among Malayalis, but also among non-Malayali cinephiles.

Kumbalangi Nights’ debutant director Madhu C. Narayanan acknowledges the debt of gratitude that filmmakers like him owe Kerala audiences who have nurtured this movement. “When we made Kumbalangi Nights,” he says, “we did it with the absolute confidence that at least we were guaranteed the audience that had seen Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.” Narayanan was credited for “creative contribution” in the latter, director Dileesh Pothan’s National Award winning hit from 2017.

Still from Angamaly Diaries

Still from Angamaly Diaries

It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation: as a new lot of experimental Malayalam filmmakers like Aashiq Abu and Pothan emerged, viewers hungry for a change from formulaic fare backed them, and these filmmakers returned the favour by taking bigger risks and persisting in making formula-defying films not reliant on reigning megastars, thus whetting existing viewer appetites while simultaneously generating curiosity among others and drawing more people to their works day by day. “With each passing film, the audience for such cinema has increased,” Narayanan adds. “The fact that there is a ready audience for quality cinema in Kerala gives us the confidence to explore more such unusual subjects.”

This confidence complements the digital upsurge that has revolutionised entertainment in India in recent years.

Until about a decade back, conventional ‘wisdom’ in the film exhibition and distribution trades largely assumed that the only Indian films (other than Hindi) that Indians were interested in watching were in their own respective mother tongues. This myopic attitude did not take into consideration people who had for years been visiting film festivals, joining film clubs, buying DVDs or illegally downloading films online in various languages since their local theatres denied them the variety they craved. In the case of films in languages other than Hindi, this group of committed cinephiles was mostly deemed by decision makers to be too minuscule to translate into significant box-office collections if the same films were to be given theatrical releases outside the regions in which their languages are primarily spoken. Barring exceptions such as the multiple dubbed versions of Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Bombay released in the 1990s, little effort was made to build awareness and spur audience growth by resorting to dubbing and/or subtitling and strong marketing.

Producers of films in languages other than Hindi either had a frog-in-the-well attitude and/or were weighted down by a defeatist, fatalistic assumption that they did not stand a chance pan-India. They also faced – and still do – the hurdle of an unabashed pro-Hindi/Bollywood bias in the supposed ‘national’ newspapers and TV channels based in Delhi and Mumbai, a bias that automatically drastically cuts down the number of news platforms on which these films could be promoted.

(Note: Bollywood producers too lacked – and still lack – the vision to subtitle their films in a bid to expand the viewership they already garner outside Hindi-speaking regions. Despite the privileges they enjoy, industry insiders estimate that on an average only 30 per cent of Hindi film collections come from beyond the Hindi belt, so there is indeed scope to extend their reach.)

It did not help that in the pre-digital age of physical prints, dubbing and/or subtitling was logistically tougher. India’s film industries lacked the far-sightedness to realise that the additional inconvenience and investment involved would lead to a long-term widening of audiences for cinema across Indian languages.

Hollywood was much quicker to nose out the potential for its films beyond the traditional audience of English speakers in India. It has been about 20 years since American majors made it a standard practice to release their films – all the tentpole projects and many smaller ones – in dubbed Telugu, Hindi and Tamil versions in India in addition to the original English.

Still from Sairat

Still from Sairat

“Hollywood had the foresight to see that localisation was the way forward to expand markets,” says Raj Malik, Vice President – Strategy & Business Development of the Mumbai-based Inspired Entertainment, a content production, distribution and promotion company. An industry veteran who has previously held senior positions at Warner Bros, Eros and Disney in India, Malik recalls that from the late 1990s onwards, long before Indian audiences for Hollywood films had reached the size they are at today, “India offices of the big studios were carpet-bombing the market with dubbed content, ranging from Men in Black to Night At The Museum, from superhero adventures to animation features”. He adds: “Films like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have achieved their present scale because of the years invested in building and enlarging the worldwide audience for them in this fashion.”

India took a cue from Hollywood much later. In the past decade or so, accompanied by the mushrooming of multiplexes, there has been an increase in Indian language cinema other than Hindi (let’s avoid the marginalising term “regional cinema”, please) being released outside their home bases. Quite fortuitously, the TV media explosion at the turn of the century had led to Hindi dubbed versions of southern Indian films being regularly released on general entertainment channels, which familiarised Hindi audiences with the stars of these industries, thus piquing the interest of some of them at least to sample these films in their original languages whenever they were available with subtitles – the gains in audience numbers in theatres have been a steady trickle ever since.

The more recent rise of the social media has also helped spread the word among film buffs about good cinema across languages that the mainstream news media in the north was/is not covering. The advent of online news platforms has helped too – news websites have by and large been more open-minded in this arena than newspapers and TV channels. At the same time, as theatres have gone digital, the switch to digital prints from physical prints has made subtitling easier.

Mangesh Kulkarni, Business Head of Zee Studios’ Marathi division points out that digitisation has also simplified distribution. “Earlier one had to take prints physically to certain markets, which is no more needed,” he explains. “This is helping us open more territories more feasibly and faster. We are able to catch on another territory while the buzz about a film is very high.”

The road is still long and wearying because the birth of new media and new technology has not necessarily been accompanied by new mindsets in all quarters. So, even today not all producers subtitle their films. Booking websites and listings do not give information about subs. Theatres – including India’s biggest multiplex chain, the PVRs – routinely provide wrong information about subtitles on their helplines and at booking counters. And even when films are subtitled, these theatres often simply skip playing the subs.

This lethal combination of inefficiency, systemic failings, cultural insularity and short-sightedness has persistently stood in the way of all Indian cinema being available to all Indians, yet there has been some notable forward movement on this front. Rajinikanth-starrers, for one, have got bigger and bigger releases outside southern India, in dubbed versions and in the original Tamil, ever since Sivaji caught the imagination of the ‘national’ media in 2007. And though blockbuster status in every corner of the country remains uncommon even for Hindi with all its advantages, a pioneering distribution and promotional gameplan helped the Baahubali franchise – dubbed versions and the original Telugu – to slip through the cracks, ace all hurdles and achieve that rare distinction, with Baahubali: The Conclusion becoming the highest grossing Indian film of all time and Baahubali: The Beginning too ranking among India’s Top 10.

Still from Anandi Gopal

Still from Anandi Gopal

These however are projects with large budgets mounted on a massive scale, designed as mass offerings and with the wherewithal to market themselves heavily. Arguably the more heartening development of the past decade has been the emergence of smaller filmmakers and smaller, thought-provoking films in various languages other than Hindi impacting the pan-India box-office when released with subtitles. This has been enabled, among other things, by social-media-driven word of mouth and the economics of multiplexes, which allows space for films of all sizes.

Riding this trend, directors like Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni (Marathi), Lijo Jose Pellissery (Malayalam) and Raam Reddy (Kannada) have become familiar names among committed cinephiles countrywide with their intimate portraits of specific cultures. Nagraj Manjule (Marathi), Anjali Menon (Malayalam) and Rajeev Ravi (Malayalam) appear to have cracked the mystery of how to turn realistic, issue-driven cinema into large-scale money-spinners. They are all children of an evolving consumer whose existence is slowly compelling Indian producers, distributors and exhibitors to rethink their business plans.

Online platforms on their part have had a dual revolutionising effect on audiences: at one level, they offer easy access to films that were earlier hard to come by for those viewers who never considered language a barrier, at another level they serve to educate new audiences through exposure. This, film industry watchers believe, is further raising footfalls in mainstream theatres for cinema in languages other than viewers’ mother tongues, which demand is then translating into more shows for such cinema in theatres.

“The digital media are preparing people en masse for consumption of content whether it is in their language or any other language with subtitles,” says Zee’s Mangesh Kulkarni

The Marathi film industry, which rivals Mollywood’s reputation for quality, is a good case study here. Kulkarni says that earlier a Marathi movie’s average collections outside Maharashtra would be 5% of the total, but that has changed in recent years with films like Katyar Kaljat Ghusali (2015) and Natsamrat (2016). Small, meaningful Marathi cinema already had a dedicated audience outside the state and beyond Marathi speakers, but the scale of interest in Marathi cinema at large has shot up since Sairat, Nagraj Manjule’s 2016 film about an upper caste girl and a Dalit boy in love: 12% of Sairat’s total collections came from outside Maharashtra, the figure was 10% for last year’s parent-child saga Naal and Anandi Gopal, a biopic of one of India’s first woman doctors.

Still from Naal

Still from Naal

“The market for Marathi movies outside Maharashtra was earlier in pockets with primarily Marathi populations. These last few films have broken that,” says Kulkarni. Naal “had a 3-4 week run in Chennai”, while Anandi Gopal “has done exceedingly well in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. They were not necessarily watched by Marathi folks, they also got huge acclaim from non-Marathis in those areas.”

Kumbalangi Nights’ Madhu C. Narayanan believes video online streaming platforms not only feed intelligent, adventurous audiences, they have also made audiences at large more exacting. “Unlike in our youth, today young people have plenty of opportunities and platforms in their hands to watch films of all languages from across India and the world,” he explains. “When youngsters with exposure to so much quality cinema watch our films, we too have to compulsorily maintain a certain minimum quality.”

It is in this context that Kumbalangi Nights has been embraced by cineastes across the country. As it heads for Delhi’s Habitat Film Festival in May, this film is a timely reminder that while language maybe region specific, emotions and laughter are not.

The country’s film-crazed millions can only hope that their own increasing open-mindedness and this era of online video streaming will deal a final death blow to the misconceptions, prejudices, lack of enterprise and inefficiencies that have for decades stalled the spread of India’s own cinema within India.

Updated Date: Apr 30, 2019 15:01:18 IST