Apparent efforts are underway in Malayalam cinema to defy all conventional language barriers and to appeal to a global audience that is inundated with extraordinary content courtesy Netflix and other OTT platforms. There have been a few elementally international movies out of Kerala, especially in the last decade or so; Sudani From Nigeria, Ozhivudivasathe Kali, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Ee Ma Yau, Maheshinte Prathikaram et al. These have caught the fancy of not just the average Indian cinephile, but also an international niche that feasts on Indian movies with much gusto. A few of the names that have been consistent in this transitional and revolutionary phase in Malayalam cinema – Shyam Pushkaran, Fahadh Faasil and Dileesh Pothen – are all a part of Madhu C. Narayanan’s sensational directorial debut, Kumbalangi Nights.
The film gets mighty contribution from an artist who hasn’t been receiving as much acclaim as these men. Sushin Shyam, a member of the Bangalore based metal outfit The Down Troddence, has had a phenomenal rise over the last few years as a composer. Be it ‘Thambiran’ from Ezra or ‘Nee’ from Varathan, the composer has been inimitable, dynamic and telluric.
Many of Shyam’s songs lend a truly international touch. With Kumbalangi Nights, he gifts his team a score that effortlessly elevates the universality of the movie. The songs seem to capture the essence of multiple international artists, inadvertent in all probability; and roots them to Kumbalangi and its flavorful locality.
‘Cherathukal’, already being hailed as the song of the year, is a languorous affair; surprisingly, it doesn’t exploit its vocalist’s terrific range. Sithara Krishnakumar has carved a niche for herself in an industry that has historically drooled over conventionally sweet female voices. Here, she gleefully takes a backseat and lets Shyam’s orchestral efforts shine; but she also pitches in by being at her evocative, melancholic best. The song starts off in an ambient and acoustic setting, only to tenderly transition into its atmospheric chorus that minimalistically sticks to the tune hummed out by Sithara. The production, especially courtesy the viola (a top-notch Danny John), is extremely redolent of Gustavo Santaolalla’s works; in particular, the incredibly heart-rending ‘The Wings’ from Brokeback Mountain.
However, what really makes the song worth the unanimous acclaim is the way Sushin flawlessly builds and leads his song into an unexpected male vocal outro that acts as the perfect crescendo. Bindhumalini achieved something similar in another recent gem, ‘Bhaavalokada’, from the Kannada movie Nathicharami, with actor Sanchari Vijay in a deeply effective cameo towards the outro – also complementing the song’s predominantly female vocalisation. The end products on both occasions, have been chasmic and cathartic.
‘Uyiril Thodum’ is the quintessential love ballad with the ever so dependable Sooraj Santosh and Anne Amie, both in fine fettle, at the helm of things. The effortlessly contagious melody, simple in production and ample in groove accumulation, is the catchiest of the soundtrack. Sooraj, as the song progresses, sounds eerily like Sid Sriram, courtesy the nasality in his voice, but in no way hampers the song. The rhythm is funky and the transitory orchestral pieces, nominal, albeit commendable.
‘Ezhutha Katha’ has Sushin Shyam himself flirting with the mic crooning an amiable melody. The harmonica augments the song but it’s the bipolar violin piece that elevates its illusory countryside mien into a mildly more complex territory.
‘Silent Cat’ is as soul stirring and mushily frisson inducing as Justin Hurwitz’ irresistibly resplendent ‘City of Stars’ from the Oscar raiding 2016 musical La La Land. Berlin-based singer K.Zia is appropriate, crooning huskily all whilst evoking an innocuous sensuousness in her rendition. While the violin and viola have been the preferred primary accompaniments in most songs, the harmonica takes centre stage here. If not K.Zia’s vocalisation, the humble instrument wielded by Dr. Harikumar G. is sure to pull one back irrevocably to the song. The outro in particular, a la ‘Masakkali’, is inexplicably enchanting.
Sushin Shyam dabbled in industrial rock and EDM with his background score and songs for Varathan. But ‘Don’t Fall’ has teleported him to the good old 80s of Michael Jackson, A-ha and Eurythmics. The spry track has Akhil Unnikrishnan on vocals with a crisp hook and progressive synthpop groove. The production of the song might leave a tad bit to be desired. Although this might just be the composer paying homage to an era of nonchalant production and inherently infectious rhythms.
Lyricists Anwar Ali, Vinayak Sasikumar and Nezer Ahemed deserve credit for scrupulously keeping the songs rooted despite its universal soundscape. Harmonicist Dr. Harikumar G., violist Danny John and violinist Rithu Vyshakh have also altruistically starred in the film’s glory, though the accolades might never reach them.
Sushin Shyam is one of the most exciting and bona fide music composers in the state today. Kumbalangi Nights is inarguably his career best effort. The musician must currently be enjoying the imprimatur of all the artists who might have ever influenced and inspired him. Sure it is only February, but the soundtrack could well go down to be the year’s best. Then again considering the attention to music in Malayalam cinema, it will be a surprise if something better doesn’t drop.
Maybe by the man of the hour himself.