In Mammootty and Jyotika’s Kaathal - The Core (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video), a lot is left for us to understand. However, no detail is small enough not to be aired — maybe not by words, but by way of visuals. We understand the grief that binds Thankan and Mathew’s enduring relationship, not thanks to monologues, but through a single shot of a school group photo that hangs beside them in their homes. The anguish that separates Omana and Mathew isn’t spelt out. Why does it have to, when we have a shot — an elongated garden fence separates the two of them quite literally — that says this better? Cinematographer Salu K Thomas believes this outlook is what adds an aesthetic approach to emotional dramas.
“Jeo Baby likes to show rather than tell. He likes an observational approach, where you can form your own perspective out of what we're showing,” says Salu, who has worked with Jeo in films such as Old Age Home (a segment in the 2022 anthology film Freedom Fight) and The Great Indian Kitchen (2021). “Kaathal is an emotional drama. So, when characters start talking about their emotional trauma, it might have become a normal drama. Malayalam cinema has had people like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, KG George, Padmarajan, and Bharathan, who have had an aesthetic approach to filmmaking. One of Jeo Baby's most favourite directors is KG George. He wants to be in that zone.”
Salu managed to bring about this effect through emotive close-ups and landscape shots lit to depict a sense of melancholy. He referred to Malayali painter Tom Vattakuzhy’s paintings — ones that are rich with light effects. “Tom Vattakuzhy depicts sadness through his art. His hometown is Thodupuzha and Kaathal happens in Pala. Both these landscapes are similar. This also helped me bring out the film's mood. We tried to bring out the melancholy that is flowing through these relationships with wide shots. When Chachan and Omana confront each other, you can see an underlit yellow warm bulb, which flows onto the green wall of the room. Tom's night interior paintings are similar to this.”
It also helped that the director, cinematographer and producer (Mammootty) saw eye-to-eye about the film’s aesthetics. “Jeo Baby and I trust each other and both of us know what we want. This practice made it less hard to think about things,” he says, adding that Mammootty was an excellent photographer too. “Mammooka was a fan of long shots more than close-ups. In the scene where his brother-in-law asks him to support Omana, everyone leaves the frame. At the end of the scene, we see Mathew standing alone. That was his suggestion too because he wanted people to understand his loneliness.”
Here, the DOP breaks down five shots from the movie that moved audiences with Baby’s “show-don’t-tell” philosophy.
Thankan and Mathew meet for the first time in the film, as rain engulfs their stolen glances
We wanted to make the interval scene very impactful. The audience needed to understand what was happening, but not through words. At this point, they meet quite unexpectedly. The rain was written into the script. Everyone takes shelter in the rain and suddenly they come together in between a lot of people. I wanted to show a lack of private space. They are meeting, but they aren't even able to look at each other's eyes. We see Thankan coming towards Mathew, and he tries to look at him, but quickly runs to his car.
In the middle of all this, we wanted to show the ambience — the rain, the environment and so on. That's why we have this wider shot where Mathew is on one edge of the frame, and Thankan is on the other end. This establishes the distance between them. After Thankan leaves, he opens up the photograph of Mathew inside the car. That is the only option he has of feeling any contact with him. In the close-ups also, we tried including a few people behind Thankan and Mathew to establish a claustrophobic effect.
Omana pleads her case and talks about the years of shared trauma, even as Mathew carries her handbag, with his head down.
The courtroom scene was different because even at that point, we weren't sure what Mathew was trying to express. Was he going to open up? There is a little cunningness to Mathew's expression, which can be noticed in the close-ups. For a few shots, we went wider because we wanted to include Omana and Mathew and give them equal importance. But when Omana is talking about her pain, it's her shot, but you can still see Mathew standing behind her.
We didn't move the camera too much in the bedroom scenes. For instance, in the shot where Omana is typing on the computer and Mathew is sitting on the opposite side, the camera is static. But in the courtroom, the camera is continuously moving to show the moving process. The house has seen 20 years of silence and loneliness, so the camera doesn’t show any movement. But the legal case changes everything.
Mathew’s shadow looms large
After lying about his identity in court, Mathew has a quiet moment in his bedroom, where he looks at his shadow on the wall, as we notice a school group photo in the background. The shot then cuts to Thankan’s room, where we see the same photo
The group photo was Jeo Baby's idea. He wanted to include some kind of reference that Mathew and Thankan met in school. In the first draft, there was a scene where someone explains how they were together in school. We changed that and put his photo in the shot. When I read this scene in the first draft, I had this shadow in my mind. His shadow has many meanings — it might be his guilt, his loneliness or maybe his subconscious.
In Omana and Chachan's confrontation scene, we can see Chachan's shadow too, which depicts his guilt when he asks her to withdraw the case. The shadow could be an imagination from Mathew's side too. My friend was asking me whether it was German Expressionism. The shadow is falling towards his mother's photo, so it's also almost like he's trying to reach out to his mother.
Mathew and his father reconcile
Mathew finally confronts his father about the elephant in the room, laying bare his feelings in the verandah, where we earlier see the two share cold stares
We wanted to keep this shot very simple because this is where Chachan and Mathew are talking after a long time. Verandah was the right place to do this because it is kind of Chachan's place. Mathew is telling his father about the sadness he has carried with him all these years. Chachan is quite old and he wants to approach Mathew. So, when Chachan stands up, Mathew knows his mere act of standing up itself is a symbol of support considering his ailing health.
The moment when Mathew reaches out to Chachan is spontaneous. Mammookka did it on the spot and both of them burst into tears. Shooting this scene was very difficult because I was like 'I'm going to tear up anytime now, how am I going to shoot?' (laughs). Filming with these legendary artists is like watching a film on the spot. You don't need any sound design to see the film.
A top-angle shot shows us Thankan finally walking towards Mathew
Thankan coming out of the election booth and looking at everyone is a form of acceptance. You can see Chachan, Omana and her daughter. He is looking at everyone and is happy. We wanted to show this image of Thankan reaching towards Mathew. In the interval, we have seen both of them on two ends, and at the end of this scene, we can see a wider top-angle shot in which Thankan is walking towards Mathew.