An exquisite untangling: Anupama Chopra on Kaathal – The Core

A couple has been married for two decades. They have a daughter in college. After years of seeming peace, the woman asks for a divorce, because the husband is gay. This, in a nutshell, is the story of the recent Malayalam release, Kaathal – The Core.

Mammootty and Jyothika as the lead characters in Kaathal. ‘What’s remarkable is the way Jeo and his writers, Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria, choose to tell the story. There are no villains here, and very little drama,’ says Chopra.

It is directed by Jeo Baby, who also made the brilliant The Great Indian Kitchen (2021). That film was about the oppression and suffocation of a new bride in Kerala, who toils all day in a kitchen with a clogged drain (and no grinding or blending equipment), to serve her husband and father-in-law freshly made meals.

Using a simple Indian kitchen, Jeo creates a horror film. It is telling that the woman remains nameless; she represents the millions in this country who labour unappreciated, day after day, living out lives of drudgery.

Kaathal is equally brilliant, and perhaps even more ground-breaking. For starters, the film stars Mammootty, as Mathew Devassy, a sedate, reserved man who is about to contest a local-body election when his wife Omana (a wonderful performance by Jyothika) files for divorce.

Mammootty’s first major film was Devalokam (Abode of the Gods; 1979). Over 44 years and more than 400 movies, he has won three National Awards, and established himself as one of India’s most iconic superstars. Here, he goes out on a limb, delivering a terrific, nuanced performance, and backing the film as producer too.

I don’t know how many senior stars would have the courage to throw image out of the window for a story like this.

What’s also remarkable is the way in which Jeo and his writers, Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria, choose to tell the story. There are no villains here, and very little drama — Matthew, Omana and Matthew’s father are all trapped by conditioning and circumstance. As is Thankan (played by a superb Sudhi Kozhikode), Matthew’s alleged partner, who keeps his distance and is largely a silent onlooker.

Even after Omana resolves to exit the marriage, there is no acrimony. Her husband quietly moves out of their bedroom. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, the night before the divorce comes through, she is crying, and asks if Matthew will sleep beside her one last time. They are still companions. It is because of her actions that he has been able to come out of the closet and find a semblance of happiness.

Jeo’s gaze is compassionate, tender. There has been some criticism of how the film portrays the love between Matthew and Thankan; they do not express it, physically or verbally. But what Kaathal – The Core accomplishes is even more important. The film gives each character dignity. This is a wonderful movie that, in its own quiet way, redefines marriage and masculinity.

In one of my favourite scenes, Omana and Matthew are in court in the middle of their divorce hearing. When Omana has to step into the witness box, she passes her handbag to Matthew. He then stands there, holding it and listening to her detail the glaring gaps in their marriage.

Kaathal – The Core is one of my favourite films of 2023. Hopefully it will soon be on a streaming platform. Do seek it out.

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