Directed by: Nirmal Sahadev || Produced by: Giju John, Nirmal Sahadev, Sreejith Sarang, Jake Bejoy
Screenplay by: Nirmal Sahadev, Fazal Hameed || Starring: Aishwarya Lekshmi, Shine Tom Chacko, Surabhi Lakshmi
Music by: Jakes Bejoy, Manikandan Ayyappa || Cinematography: Abraham Joseph || Edited by: Sreejith Sarang || Country: India || Language: Malayalam
Running Time: 137 minutes
Though generic, broad, big-budget blockbusters the world over (i.e. Hollywood by tradition, mainland Chinese cinema more recently, and Hindi filmmaking via musical melodramas almost exclusively), all feel kind of the same in terms of their genre makeup — most contain bombastic yet still family-friendly action, expensive special FX, whether digital or practical, and light to moderate fantasy-adventure flourishes depending on the premise — I’ve appreciated how popular American cinema (re: Hollywood plus assorted independent studios like A24, XYZ, Blumhouse, Black Label Media, Lionsgate, etc. as of this writing) has always kept a strong if sidestream undercurrent of diverse genre (e.g. action, science-fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, etc.) cinema no matter the decade (see the Alien [1979, 1986, 1992] and Predator [1987, 1990, 2010] franchises, Paul Verhoeven’s Stateside sci-fi action films [1987, 1990, 1997], The Terminator [1984, 1991, 2003] series, Steven Spielberg’s more visceral work like Jaws , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Saving Private Ryan , as well as his collaborations with Tom Cruise, etc.). Even modern US filmmaking, where giant tentpole features dominate theatres arguably more than they ever have, still maintains a steady flow of mid-budgeted genre films, even if they’re now mostly relegated to streaming services (for a big exception, see John Wick [2014-2023]).
Indian cinema represents an interesting contrast to American filmmaking despite big-budget, broadly written (i.e. watered down) crowdpleasers aimed at general audiences being the bread and butter of both industries. What most struck me after my initial foray into Indian filmmaking — aside from the prominence of the film musical, of course — was the sheer rarity, regardless of language or regional industry (Indian cinema is parsed by linguistics as much as the major vs independent studio dynamic), of purebred action, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. Though many Indian movies, much like their Hollywood blockbuster counterparts, mix dashes of different genres to construct large-scaled pictures geared to as wide an audience as possible, purebred genre films are difficult to find across the subcontinent, and explicit, adult-oriented ones even more so; forgettable theatrical releases like Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) appear as minor blips on the radar with limited influence, yet even those exceptions retain mainstream Indian blockbuster staples like watered down action, shoehorned musical numbers, and longwinded family melodrama mixed with a strong helping of romantic subplots.
With the recent if limited success of Kaithi (2019), The Priest (2021), and streaming releases like Andhaghaaram (2020), I’m hopeful popular Indian filmmaking further diversifies with films like today’s subject of review, Kumari. This sophomore feature by Malayali writer-director Nirmal Sahadev utilizes a mythological framing device a la Baahubali’s (2015, 2017) over-the-top diegesis to embellish an otherwise traditional coming-of-age story; unlike that fun S. S. Rajamouli crowdpleaser, though, Kumari focuses its fantastical backstory on an otherwise realistic, real-world setting that streamlines itself into a horror film; no unnecessary song numbers, love interests, or cringeworthy comic relief side characters crowd the frame. Instead, Kumari describes the arranged marriage of its eponymous protagonist and quasi-“final girl,” Aishwarya Lekshmi, to the man (Shine Tom Chacko) of a wealthy yet mysterious family whose ancestral home lies atop cursed land haunted by multiple supernatural entities (re: demons).
Despite its modest length (137 minutes) for an Indian film, Kumari packs much diegetic flavor, foreboding tone, and creepy set-design into its story. The outdoor location photography in rural Kerala is as gorgeous as it feels oppressive, like a predator is always stalking you from just beyond the foliage. Indoor set-design is also well done, where character relationships are illustrated by their blocking relative to striking ornate furniture, harsh shadows, and mazelike yet beautiful architecture. With regards to makeup and costume-design, characters come alive depending on how their wardrobe changes, and the creative yet modest design of our two primary supernatural figures feels refreshing next to so many exorcism related demons, H. R. Giger xenomorph ripoffs, and creepy clowns.
Sahadev’s direction supports this effective mise-en-scène even when his screenplay doesn’t. Camerawork is most always motion-controlled, dollied, or locked on a tripod, so the film’s overall look has a more professional feel than it’s limited budget might otherwise imply. In terms of writing, however, the film is much less consistent, particularly outside Lekshmi’s lead and Chacko’s male love-interest/antagonist. Even the movie’s enticing mythology, first teased in its opening scene (see below) loses some of its luster once the ultimate mystery behind Lekshmi’s in-law family history is revealed, though a strong ending picks up some of that slack.
Where Kumari ultimately loses me is in its bloated, underutilized supporting cast and poor story-length editing; the film as is should’ve cut multiple pointless characters and sequences that don’t progress the narrative in any way. A laughable fistfight between Lekshmi’s diegetic brother (Rahul Madhav) and Chacko kills the pacing of the third act, while major roles by Shruthy Menon and producer Giju John should’ve been minimized if not excised from the screenplay altogether. Hints of this disorganized writing and editing are evident from the opening prologue, which features a verbose voiceover describing the film’s supernatural entities that confuses as much as it informs the audience.
Top to bottom, Kumari is a film I really, really wanted to like yet am restricted to merely respecting. Indian cinephiles, Malayalam-speakers most of all, may appreciate the artistic and/or cultural merit from melding Kerala iconography and culture with purebred genre aesthetics, but few others will. I find the movie interesting for its stylistic rarity within greater South Asian filmmaking, but I’ll concede that’s a big yawn to most audiences. Still, there’s something to be said for films, Indian ones too, that commit to the extreme stylistic ends that movies can go to: I like my colorful, well choreographed, over-the-top musical melodramas (e.g. Sanjay Bhansali’s filmography) as well as the more straightforward, purebred genre films whose primary changes from industry to industry are their cultural backdrops. It’s the stuff in the middle, i.e. blockbusters, that often feel the most watered down by comparison.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Great looking and with a mood that’s even more impressive, Kumari showcases how well old-fashioned genre formula can work in a South Indian context. A great lead in Aishwarya Lekshmi and a satisfying conclusion begin and end the film on strong footing.
— However… common screenwriting weaknesses like too many supporting characters, unnecessary fight sequences, and longwinded voiceovers drag down the story.
— ON THE FENCE; I liked the film well enough for what it represents, a stylistic deviation from the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Indian filmmaking norm, but it has too many flaws to recommend to most viewers.
? Do I have to bring up the “juggling balls” metaphor again to discourage mixing too many genres in moviemaking?
Pingback: ‘Tumbbad’ (2018): Diving into South Asian Horror | Express Elevator to Hell - March 30, 2023