Director: Jeo Baby
Writers: Paulson Skaria, Adarsh Sukumaran
Cast: Mammootty, Jyotika, Anagha Akku
Available in: Theatres
Duration: 114 minutes
On September 6, 2018, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a law that criminalises same-sex relations was revoked. The moment was celebrated, and newspapers in the days that followed were flooded with many narratives and opinions. In a way, Jeo Baby’s Kaathal – The Core picks up one such event that we have either gone through or witnessed or heard about after the monumental judgement. Reinventing himself in his 70s, Mammootty is an actor who isn’t afraid to take risks, lending a powerful space in mainstream cinema to address socially relevant issues to a larger audience.
If Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) ends with a divorce, his Kaathal – The Core begins with a divorce petition. The spirit of these films, along with his short (Old Age Home) in Freedom Fight (2022) remains the same – a stride towards social freedom, as his characters learn to place themselves before everyone else. The film introduces us to Mammootty’s Mathew, who is about to represent his party in byelections, when he is asked to solve an issue. A woman puts up a fight against her father to get married to her lover, who belongs to a different economic background. Now, if Mathew convinces the couple to not get married, four votes from the family are his. But he asks another member, “Is this our party’s stand on love?” And instead advises her father to get the young couple married. This scene sows the seeds for the events that follow, while letting us understand Mathew’s perspective on love.
Jeo doesn’t show or tell us about the 20 year-history of Mathew and Omana’s (Jyotika) marital life. Instead, he lets the photo-filled walls in their home and a few brief conversations between the couple, do the job. So, when Omana files for a divorce, citing that Mathew is a homosexual man, a sense of vagueness starts to kick in. Mathew denies these claims publicly but they never argue over it. So, you do not get to know what this couple actually feel. But Jeo keeps it this way for a reason and he gradually begins to unravel the complexities in their relationship, most of which happens post the interval.
Heavy with dialogue and a slow-paced first-half, what keeps you invested in Kaathal – The Core is its adamancy in not surrendering to superficiality. As word about Mathew’s divorce and sexuality spreads in the village, we see people take sides — comments are passed, and a few even suggest Omana rethink her decision. Mathew is reluctant to participate in the elections, but the party is even more interested now, for they have “a progressive card.” In a series of similar events that follow, the film gives us a view of the different opinions people have, without generalising these attitudes with labels such as 'progressive' or 'regressive'. Like in the recent Amazon Prime Video film Red, White & Royal Blue, Kaathal addresses the added complications of coming out in a world of politics.
It is through subtle vignettes that Jeo shows where Mathew and Omana stand in each other’s lives — theirs is a love that is platonic, and one that has developed over years of familiarity and comfort. When Omana is seen giving her statement on the witness stand, Mathew volunteers to carry her handbag. Likewise, after having a heated conversation with her father-in-law, she doesn’t break down, but goes back inside the kitchen and continues to mop the floor. Coming out is a difficult choice, but doing so after 20 years of marriage with a big political promotion in the offing is a baggage that Mathew carries. The heaviness and fear he feels internally are perfectly captured in a shot of him alone in the room, with his shadow looming larger on the wall.
Mammootty poignantly makes us feel his character’s vulnerability and helplessness, sometimes giving us glimpses of him in love, yearning to put back all his broken pieces together. Omana shows how decriminalising Section 377 has altered several lives, not only that of queer people but also that of the others that surround them. Jyotika breathes life into Omana, conveying her deepest worries with just a few expressions, for she has lived all her life with a mask that says “everything is okay” and a heart that’s done waiting.
For a film that speaks so much about queer love, Jeo restricts himself to telling Mathew’s love story with just a few snippets of his lover. But this might just be to reflect the small fragments of their feelings that they are allowed to show for each other in a world of eagle-eyed bigots. That said, the small, hesitant looks they share, the poetic interval point and their expressions of hope, all coupled with the perfect company of Mathews Pulickan’s score beautifully capture the essence of their relationship. Kaathal – The Core speaks about the struggles of coming out and addresses the need for acceptance in a conventional society. And if that’s not bold and progressive, I am not sure what is.