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Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque: A Bakhtenian Reading of

Kumbalangi Nights

Abhirami S R

2nd MA English

Institute of English,


Malayalam Cinema, by and large, with the past decade of new subaltern practices in cinematic

themes, has reached its nouveau riche with the recent release of Kumbalangi Nights. Ranging

from Kammattippadam, Ee Maa Yau, Angamali Diaries to Kumbalangi Nights, Malayalam

cinema has traversed a long journey to reach its essence of postcolonial cinema treatments.

Kumbalangi Nights, directed by Madhu C Narayan is an experiment in this regard for its

treatment of the carnivalesque and deconstruction in the family narratives. In this paper I am

trying to resolve the question of the bourgeois hysteria and the carnivalesque enjoyed by the film

language and the actual readership of it by the subaltern audience.

“Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want

deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes- these are stuff of

utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined

and may be realized” (Richard Dyer, 1993:273). Kumbalangi Nights, the recent Malayalam

movie directed by Madhu C Narayan, in this sense, creates a utopia for the viewers to cling into.

The film starts as an escape from the confines of bourgeois hysteria into the carnivalesque of

Kumbalangi, and also from the weariness of work into the energy of leisure. This energy runs
through the whole narratological framework of the movie and creates a repertoire for the

celebration of the carnival. Far from the middle class denominations of civility, Kumbalangi is a

site of carnival where the symbols of power and violence are turned inside out into comic images

of body, abandonment, life and death.

The home of Saji which is situated in the corners of theettaparampu (a place where human

faecal waste is dumped in) in Kumbalangi is a carnival of eating, drinking, defecation,

pregnancy, and dismemberment. Franki’s cooking of fish curry, Saji’s and Bobby’s consumption

of arrack, the very presence of the theettaparampu and the ring work of septic tank done by

Franki, the pregnancy of Murugan’s wife and the dumbness of Bonny exemplate Bakhtin’s idea

of carnival in this regard. Here carnival arises as a permanent revolution, and culture as a

battleground where marginal figures endlessly undermine all centers. The life of Saji and siblings

and the language they speak is put in contrast to the middle class decency of Shammy’s world.

Saji and Bobby in a way parody the bourgeois life through various genres of billingsgate. The

curses, oaths and popular blazons by Saji and Bobby add to the folk humour of the

carnivalesque. The blend of comic and tragic elements is another example for carnival which is

visible in Kumbalangi. Life in “the worst house in the panchayath” is tragic for Franki which at

times become comic for the viewers in the encounters between Saji and Bobby.

Laughter is another important element of the carnival. One can find two types of laughter in the

movie- one is the Carnival Laughter and the other is the Cathartic Laughter. Carnival laughter is

directed at exalted objects, and forces them to renew themselves; thus its debasing results in new

life and it is ambivalent; “much was permitted in the form of laughter than was permitted in

serious form”. It degrades and materializes. As Bakhtin says, “To degrade also means to concern

oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it
therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth.

Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth”. The carnival laughter of Saji and Bobby

reverberates throughout the movie. According to Bakhtin, the lower part of the body is always

associated with reproduction, and therefore is feminine in subject. Therefore Saji bringing

Murugan’s wife and child with him to their home and Bobby bringing Baby Mol connect

themselves with the carnival laughter in the movie. The death of Murugan is an example of the

act of degradation where which the father’s death digs a bodily grave for the birth of his child.

As Bakhtin says, “the death of the individual is only a moment in the celebrating life of the folk

and of human kind, a moment necessary for their rejuvenation and completion”.

Cathartic laughter is the Freudian technique in psychoanalysis where the horror evoked by the

grotesque is turned to a laughter in cure of it. In Kumbalangi Nights, the psychic character of

Shammy and his signature laughter can be read in terms of this ‘cathartic laughter’ introduced by

Sigmund Freud. The high patriarchy in Shammy when come into contact with Baby Mol’s

feminism and Bobby’s carnival transform him into a psycho with ‘bourgeois hysteria’. Thus the

cathartic laughter of Shammy is a means to purge his hysteria and he adopts this often to deal

with the carnivalesque. Here the bourgeois hysteria is the result of the phobic alienation in the

bourgeois unconsciousness towards the carnival. Shammy’s laughter acts as a repressive

mechanism adopted by the bourgeois hysteria to encounter the carnival.

As Bakhtin juxtaposes the ‘classical’ with the ‘grotesque’ in his theory of the carnival, Julia

Kristeva adopts the same to formulate her theory of the ‘semiotic’ and the ‘symbolic’. The

semiotic of Kristeva can be correlated with the grotesque as a carnival of the feminine principle,

of body fluids, of lower stratum, and of reproduction. While reading Kumbalangi Nights in this

light of the Kristevan semiotic, it can be found that the whole family of Saji is still in the
semiotic stage in the absence of a paternal figure. In contrast to the patriarchy of Shammy, Saji

and family stand in the semiotic stage of a gender fluid system where the grotesque and the

carnival are celebrated.

While analyzing the theatrical reception of the movie Kumbalangi Nights, it can be found that,

though it was narrated in the suburbs of rural life, the movie enjoyed a vast spectrum of audience

ranging from youth to intelligentsia. Though there is a gradual reconstruction of the idea of

carnival as the culture of the other, carnival here becomes a sentimental spectacle for bourgeois

life. The deconstructed familial structure of Saji and the carnival of Kumbalangi thus emerge as a

utopia for the sentimental bourgeois viewers whereas Shammy emerges as a hero for the lower

class audience to an extent.

Works Consulted:

 Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia”. The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon

During. USA: Routledge, 2005. Print.

 Stallybrass, Peter & Allen White. “Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque”. The

Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. USA: Routledge, 2005. Print.

 Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. USA: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.