Malayalam filmmaker Jeo Baby, from his first film, 2 Penkuttikal (2016), has undertaken socially relevant subjects. But it’s with his fourth film, The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), that the filmmaker’s visual storytelling techniques reached its peak. Baby’s nuanced yet hard-hitting take-down of the patriarchal mindset ably circumvents the melodrama inherent to such cinematic narratives. With Kaathal – The Core (2023), Jeo Baby explores an even more taboo subject in Indian/Malayalam cinema and expresses profound empathy for all characters involved. Kaathal – The Core sensitively explores the themes of homosexuality and acceptance, and it primarily catches the attention of a larger audience since popular star actors like Mammootty and Jyothika play the lead roles.

Written by Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria, the narrative is laced with subtle poignancy and heavy silences. It revolves around Matthew Devassy (Mammootty), a buttoned-up middle-aged man who lives with his father, wife, Omana (Jyothika), and has a 19-year-old daughter. Matthew is persuaded to contest as an independent leftist candidate in the local ward elections. Just as the party declares Matthew’s candidacy, the news of Omana filing for divorce – citing her husband’s concealed homosexuality as the reason – becomes the talk of the town. Matthew is alleged to have persisted in a relationship with Thankan (Sudhi Kozhikode), who runs a driving school in the same town.

Director Jeo Baby firmly establishes Matthew and Omana’s emotional and physical distance. Matthew’s stoic exterior only allows mild bafflement when he learns about the divorce notice. He rejects Omana’s claims and takes a party member’s advice to dispute the case in court. As we initially hear about the divorce petition, there’s a sense of vagueness. But the film doesn’t try to build a mystery around Matthew’s sexual orientation. Jeo Baby delicately hints at the ghosts of the past through Matthew’s estranged relationship with his father. The true nature of Thankan’s friendship with Matthew is also made apparent through a few telling and graceful moments.

Despite deep down acknowledging that he is unavailable for Omana, especially within the bounds of a romantic relationship, Matthew has managed to live a lie. Though he denies his wife’s allegation in court, Matthew and others mostly wonder, ‘why now’? Why file the petition after two decades of marriage, and why just when he is about to contest in the election where his personal life will definitely come under scrutiny? The answer to the latter question is quite simple, whereas the former question leads us to navigate the complex emotional terrain of the Devassy family.

Earlier in the narrative, when Matthew is called to mediate between a girl who has eloped with her lover and her enraged father, Matthew, for political reasons, is advised to take a ‘conservative approach.’ But Matthew does the opposite, entreating the parents to accept their daughter’s choice. As we learn more about Matthew’s life, the moment remains something more than a scene establishing the protagonist. On the one hand, he is quite liberal as a parent, but on the other hand, Matthew obviously carries the shame, trauma, and fears from the past. The film doesn’t put a special weightage around the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay.’ We first hear the word ‘homosexuality’ halfway into the narrative, and that too, in a candid courtroom session. Love, acceptance, compassion, and inclusivity are the chief concerns of the narrative rather than labeling the subject matter with a ‘progressive’ emphasis.

Kaathal The Core (2023)
A still from Jeo Baby’s ‘Kaathal – The Core’ (2023)

In Kaathal – The Core, Jeo Baby also digs at how we calculatively try to conform to contemporary progressive and liberal notions. The uncle, who is casual about his niece drinking, finds it hard to accept his sister filing for a divorce. The political party that stands by Matthew has its own reason to support his political campaign. In fact, it is to Jeo Baby and his writers’ credit the narrative packs plenty of human insights.

While Kaathal – The Core is a depiction of a closeted homosexual in a heterosexual marriage and their journey of reconciliation, the film also hints at the inner journey of the characters remaining in the periphery. Thankan’s teenage nephew, Kuttayi, eventually accepts his remarried mother, who yearns for her son’s love. Matthew and Omana’s daughter, Femi, understands the trauma behind her birth and yet reconciles with her dad. The brother eventually accepts his sister’s decision, though he has vehemently opposed her in the past.

Matthew and Omana might be victims of a societal mindset that unfortunately prevails to date. Matthew has to conceal a part of his self since society calls it a crime. Now, he struggles with the pain-inducing process of coming out. Omama is forced to adopt an air of resignation, repressing her own desires and needs. Yet, the film doesn’t place blame on select individuals or create easily identifiable villains. The societal backlash, driven by homophobia, is a pivotal element that haunts Matthew and Thankan. Yet Jeo Baby, thankfully, doesn’t choose to demonstrate this using homophobic slurs or wallowing in the existing biases towards queer people. The filmmaker also indicates that the fallout of this specific issue might differ for Matthew and Thankan due to their social classes.

I do feel the movie could have more visually explored the depth of the characters as it neatly progressed towards a resolution, irrespective of the two extraordinary moments of reconciliation – one between Matthew and his father, the other between Omana and Matthew. Nevertheless, there’s much to cherish in Kaathal – The Core, chiefly Mammootty and Jyothika’s lead performances. The 72-year-old star continues to astound us with his diverse choice of roles (he has also backed the project) at a time when most Indian star performers are highly conscious about their so-called image.

Mammootty once again proves he is a master at low-key performances. There are a few touching moments where the actor effortlessly tugs at our heartstrings. But even in simple moments, like when Matthew stands with his wife’s handbag as she is called to the stand to depose against him, or when Matthew hands over a pamphlet to Thankan, the megastar’s silence speaks a lot.

Overall, Kaathal – The Core (114 minutes) is a subtle and somber drama that charts a tender journey of reconciliation between a married couple.

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Kaathal – The Core (2023) Trailer

Kaathal – The Core (2023) Movie External Links: IMDb, Letterboxd
Kaathal – The Core (2023) Movie Cast: Mammootty, Jyothika, Anagha Akku, Alex Alister, and Sudhii Kozhikode

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