Readers Write In #69: The Brothers Napoleon

Posted on March 3, 2019


Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Kumbalangi Nights is a beautifully crafted cinema. Each character in the story is well-etched. The movie takes us on an emotional roller-coaster from laughter to sadness to the joy of first love to the depth of sorrow and loss to fear and finally to triumph. The journey is not just of emotions, it is also of the transformation that each character goes through. Shammi, played by Fahadh Faasil, grabbed a lot of attention due to the eccentricity of the character, the actor’s brilliance and his stardom. But for me, Kumbalangi Nights was about the four sons of Napoleon, Saji, Boney, Bobby and Frankie.

The parallels between the characterisation of the brothers in the movie and that of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky was hard to miss. Of course, like any good writer, Syam Pushkaran has done some omissions, commissions and some merging to develop the characters of Kumbalangi Nights. Syam was the writer for the Malayalam film ‘Iyobinte Pusthakam’, also about a family- a patriarch and his three brothers. The names of the brothers- Dmitry, Ivan and Aloshy, were borrowed from the Russian classic. With Kumbalangi Nights, he goes a level deeper and adapts the characteristics and the character arc of the brothers in the novel and gels it well into the milieu of Kumbalangi. Here are some of my observations:

Napoleon–  The father of the four brothers of Kumbalangi. In fact he is not a character in the movie. But his history has some parallels with Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the patriarch in the book. Napoleon has four sons from his two marriages, Fyodor also had four sons, including Pavel, who was born out of wedlock. If Napoleon was not present in the formative years of his children as he died at an early age, Fyodor was absent as he had no interest in family affairs. Napoleon left behind his young, jobless sons to fend for themselves, within an unfinished house.

Fyodor is characterised as a fool and a freeloader, living off others’ money. This part of his character seems to have been merged with the character of Saji, the elder brother in the movie. Though the character of Napoleon does not appear in the story, he has an invisible and perpetual presence in it. The lives of the four brothers are heavily determined by their complicated family tree and this drives the plot of the movie.

Saji (Soubin Shahir)- The eldest brother in the family. As in the book, he is the offspring of Napoleon from his first marriage. The writer of the film gives the sponger trait of Fyodor to Saji. He is shown to be running an ironing business with Murugan (a Tamil migrant worker), where Saji bums around talking about inane topics while Murugan does all the work. In that hilarious scene, after an altercation with the lottery ticket seller about his debt, we see Saji takes money from Murugan’s cashbox to repays it and, without any qualms asks Murugan to pack up and join him at the bar as he has lost his “mood” after the fight. This side of Saji comes up in an earlier scene where Saji and Bobby are fighting and Bobby reminds Saji that he is a loafer leeching off that “Tamizhan’s” sweat. Unlike the eldest Karamazov brother, Dmitry, here Saji has no love interest and doesn’t show much interest in women. Also, Saji is shown to be devoted to his late father. We see this on two occasions, first when he prays in front of his father’s portrait and second when he describes his family to the shrink. He tells the doctor that his father had big dreams and was a good worker.

In the latter part of the movie, the remorseful, and emotional side of Saji is explored. After the death of Murugan, he brings his coworker’s wife and newborn daughter home. The tenderness in Saji’s face and the need to cry is visible when he first sees the newborn. Like Dmitry, he too is genuinely remorseful of the “sins” he has committed and wants to atone for it. He comes out of the crisis as a stronger and better human being. The words, “You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again”, spoken to Alyosha in the Russian classic seems perfect for what Saji goes through in the movie. Saji’s repentance is also emphasised by the shot of the picture of Jesus, just before he meets Murugan’s pregnant wife.

And he also feels a tenderness such as he has never known before urging up in his heart, he wants to weep, he wants to do something for them all, so that the wee one will no longer cry. …And his whole heart blazed up and turned toward some sort of light, and he wanted to live and live.” (The Brothers Karamazov, 9.8.45)

The beautiful image of Saji rowing the boat with Murugan’s wife and his daughter brings to the mind of the audience the imagery of the Madonna. This image, which comes few scenes after the moment where Saji looks at the picture of Jesus and repents for his sins, is a visual depictions of Dmitry’s words where he says even a man with “lofty heart” and “highest mind” cannot differentiate between the “ideal of Madonna” (good) and the “ideal of Sodom” (evil) without divine guidance. Clearly, like Dmitry, Saji whose mind was set on killing himself has chosen “the ideal of Madonna” with spiritual intervention.

Besides, I can’t bear it that some man, even with a lofty heart and the highest mind, should start from the ideal of the Madonna and end with the ideal of Sodom […] No, man is broad, even too broad.” (The Brothers Karamazov 3.4.29)

The events that lead to his friend’s death showed his emotional side. One aspect that I felt not many people are talking about is that Saji always had a need for respect and the longing to be his brothers’ keeper. When Bobby approaches him to discuss his interest in Babymol, the first thing that Saji asks him is to call him “Chetta”. As funny as the scene was, it revealed Saji’s inner desire for validation from his brothers. Post that request, he goes about wholeheartedly to discuss the alliance with Shammi, plan the renovation work needed for the house so as to gain more acceptance from Babymol’s family. If not for this yearning, judging by the chemistry between Saji and Bobby in the earlier scenes, why would Saji help Bobby? The emotional nadir he plunges to when Boney hits him with an oar for having “punished” Frankie’s supposed insult further underlines this deep pining.

Boney (Sreenath Bhasi)- The second brother in the family. Napoleon is not his biological father. He is Napoleon’s second wife’s son. He is mute. But he is quiet not just in the matter of speech but also by way of conduct he is calm and composed. He is shown to mostly stay with his dance troupe and rarely comes home. He is repulsed by the constant squabbling between Saji and Bobby and his only attachment to the family comes from his affection towards the youngest brother, Frankie. They are shown to share a special bond. This is another shift made in the movie compared to the novel. Dmitry, the eldest, is shown to be closest to his youngest brother, Alyosha. Dmitry also has a good relationship with the second brother Ivan. The friendship between Saji and Boney, forged on the first night of their father and mother, only gets a passing mention in a conversation between Bobby and Babymol.

Bobby (Shane Nigam)- The third brother in the family. He is Napoleon’s first son from his second marriage. He is a loafer and has an absolute aversion towards any kind of work. He whiles away his time at the beach, listening to music on his speaker. In one scene, Babymol requests help from Bobby and to make the offer lucrative, she adds work is a paid gig, Bobby’s friend, Prashanth, cautions her that in no way should Bobby feel like he is “working”. The character of Bobby has no clear link with any of the Karamazov brothers. One could argue that the hedonistic streak of Dmitry and the atheistic streak of Ivan could be found in Bobby. When Prashanth tells Bobby that he has decided to marry his girlfriend, Bobby is surprised and then cryptically comments, “do you need to setup a tea shop to drink a cup of tea?”. Also, his persistent attempts to kiss his girlfriend and his rant, “I am a MAN” when his overtures were rejected gives us a peek into Bobby’s psyche and his attitude towards women. And the closest we get to thoughts on religion or God is the scene where he sarcastically asks Saji, who is praying in front of his father’s portrait, “Why this farce, Saji?!”. But Ivan Karamazov is a rational person and debates about philosophical matters like the existence of God and human suffering. In contrast, in his own words, Bobby is “total chill” and does not smoke pot as he may have to think otherwise. Bobby is a rather shallow person. In a rare moment of clarity and muddled eloquence, Bobby compares the downfall of parents to that of the Varaal fish, which becomes easy prey because of its orange colour when its offspring surround it. The movie is not concerned with his spiritual life but explores and shows his transformation when it comes to attitude towards women.

Frankie (Mathew Thomas)- Like Alyosha, Frankie is the youngest and the most pleasant of all brothers. He is, simply put, a good boy. He has a cherubic smile. In the novel, Dmitry who is very close to Alyosha refers to him as “the cherub”.

You know, Dmitry calls you ‘the cherub’.” (The Brothers Karamazov, 11.10.1)

The movie opens with the scene in his school hostel where his friends ask whether they can come to his house for vacation. Clearly, ashamed of his family’s and his house’s condition, he tells everyone at his home is down with chicken pox. His disgust with his house is evident on his face. He cleans the house, washes all the clothes, catches some fish and prepares dinner for his brothers. He even calls Boney so that they can all have dinner together on their father’s death anniversary.

One crucial parallel with the novel is that it is Frankie that saves Saji as it is him that takes Saji to a psychiatrist or counsellor when Saji was mentally disturbed. In the novel, Dmitry also contemplates suicide and saved by the sight of Alyosha whom he loves.

Here is a willow, there is a handkerchief, a shirt, I can make a rope right now, plus suspenders, and – no longer burden the earth, or dishonor it with my vile presence! And then I heard you coming – Lord, just as if something suddenly flew down on me: ah, so there is a man that I love” (The Brothers Karamazov 3.11.8)

Frankie is not the central character in the movie but he is the anchor of the family. Probably the only sane and level-headed person in that household. His displeasure in having to return home from his school hostel is clear. Frankie describes his family as “the worst house in this panchayat”. This is similar to the case of Alyosha where he prefers to stay in his monastery and use it as an escape from his nutty family and demands to know why he has been asked to go “into the world”.

Why had the elder sent him “into the world”? Here was quiet, here was holiness, and there – confusion, and a darkness in which one immediately got lost and went astray.” (The Brothers Karamazov 3.11.25)

The brilliance of Syam Pushkaran is in the detailing and bringing the characters in the novel to an environment relatable to a Malayali, if not an international, audience. The director, Madhu C Narayanan and writer Syam, plays the audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra or the master craftsmen chiseling out a dazzling sculpture.. The characters may have been inspired by the Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, but Kumbalangi Nights is an original. The movie explores the questions- What is “true” love? Who is a complete man? What makes a house a home? It answers the final question in style. A home is not just a place with plastered walls, smokeless stove and washing machine as Saji says. It’s about the people in it and the love that connects them.

Oh! and one last thing,…as Frankie adds, it needs a European closet!

(by Vineet Jacob Kuruvilla)