Saturday, August 24, 2019

Men in barbershops: a Malayalam film meets a classic Western

[my “movie moments” column for The Hindu links two outstanding films made 73 years apart – Kumbalangi Nights, one of the best Indian films of the year, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine]

Shammi is an immaculately turned out man, the sort of man for whom the term “well-groomed” might have been coined: smooth face, not a hair out of place. He keeps patting his moustache as if to ensure its geometrical perfection. We are unsurprised to learn that he works in a hair salon.

Going by outward appearances, one might slot him as a new-age, metrosexual man, comfortable around women – he lives with his wife, her younger sister and their mother. But alarm bells ring too. The first time we see him, he is looking at himself approvingly in a bathroom mirror, mumbling “Raymond, the Complete Man” and using a razor blade to remove a bindi from the glass. Dismantling the matriarchy? Later, he remarks that working in the kitchen doesn’t befit a man with a “proper job”.

Now consider Saji, who is roughhewn and unkempt, often drunk, and the oldest member of a family that has no women in it: only four brothers, living in an untidy house. The first time we see Saji and his brother Bobby fight, they end up a mass of limbs on the floor – two beasts wrestling, grabbing each other’s crotches to gain an advantage.

The contrast between Shammi and Saji (played by two outstanding actors, Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir respectively) lies at the heart of the lovely new film Kumbalangi Nights. The first meeting between the two is in the salon, where Saji has nervously come with a marriage proposal for Bobby. But Shammi has no intention of letting his sister-in-law marry into a “low-grade” household: in a blackly funny scene, he runs his blade contemplatively over poor Bobby’s neck while giving him a shave.

This setting reminded me that in some old American Westerns, the barbershop (or the fancier “tonsorial parlour”) was a transformative space: a man might become more refined once his hair is trimmed; the lawless Wild West may thus be tamed. A major disruption in John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine occurs when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) visits a salon but can’t get a peaceful shave because of a loud brawl outside; he heads out, foam still on face, to restore order. Later in the film, he admires himself in the mirror – much as Shammi constantly does in Kumbalangi Nights – and preens a little as the barber sprays scent on him.

Such a binary would suggest that Shammi represents civilization while Saji and his siblings are the savages living in the wild outdoors. But the very structure of Kumbalangi Nights leading one to rethink one’s ideas about what is civilized behaviour and what is savage. And in fact, that old Ford Western doesn’t have easy binaries either: Wyatt Earp may be more law-abiding than his friend, the alcoholic Doc Holliday – but Doc is a gentleman inside, introspective, cultured (he even knows Shakespeare), while Wyatt sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be a “modern” man.

Saji doesn’t have regular work – he sponges off a friend – while Shammi is a responsible family man. But these are incomplete pictures: they don’t show how pliable Saji is, and how rigid and controlling Shammi is. (One can also compare him with Bhavani Shankar in Gol Maal, obsessed with purity, proud of his moustache.) “The Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” Shammi says condescendingly in the barbershop scene, “People can change.” But ironically, Shammi himself is incapable of changing, while Saji becomes more mature with time.

Both men have psychological issues, but when Saji comes close to the abyss, he realises he must help himself: he goes to a doctor to cry out his emotions. Meanwhile Shammi insists on being “a hero”. When he is told off, he goes and stands in a corner by himself, his face against the wall, then returns for another confrontation – like a robot that might occasionally short-circuit, but is programmed to set itself right without any external help.

Faasil’s pitch-perfect performance as the fastidious Shammi gets the most out of scenes like the one where he insists everyone dines
together, his eyes moving around the table. Or the remarkable scene – which goes from being commonplace to creepily funny, through the subtle inflexions in Shammi’s speech – where he overhears his wife and her sister talking about something. “What’s up?” he asks, and then cajolingly speaks variations on “Go on, tell me.” Peering out from behind a door, oily smile on his face, he looks a bit like a Cheshire Cat ready to unsheathe its claws. As he will do in the film’s climax – by which point the carpet has been nicely pulled out from under our feet, and our ideas about heroes and rogues, refined and unrefined behaviour, have been thoroughly muddled.

[Earlier “moments” columns here]

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