Jeo Baby’s Mammootty-Jyothika starrer, ‘Kaathal – The Core,’ opens with a lengthy, melancholy solo of the violin that sets the tone for the entire film, encapsulating pain in its purest form. While making a socio-political statement, Jeo Baby unearths a purposefully neglected aspect of pain – coming out as homosexual. The statement might seem dramatic, akin to the over-the-top climax Jeo has crafted for ‘Kaathal.’ However, for those who have experienced it or witnessed their loved ones going through it, the truth of this pain is undeniable. Jeo aims to showcase to society the beauty of normalizing inclusiveness, choosing a fanciful ending to underscore this.
Jeo’s writers Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria occasionally resort to the FAQ format to elucidate the necessity of proper understanding and acceptance of sexual orientation. However, it’s not these preaching sessions that drive the point home; it’s the characters. Mammootty, Jyothika, RS Panicker, and Sudhi Kozhikode immerse themselves in the pain, portraying Mathew, Omana, Chaachan, and Thankan with conviction.
The film doesn’t rely on fancy camera work or edits. Salu K. Thomas’s camera stays as an observer through most parts of the film. However, when he decides to give the plot a cinematography push, comes some of the well-choreographed frames. It happens only on a handful of occasions like the moment when Omana asks her brother Tomy (Joji John) at least once to stand with her during her time of crisis and when she walks into the room Tomy is shown as a dwarf against the blurred feet of Omana. Then there is the rain sequence before the interval. These handfuls of frames suggest that Salu might have missed his ‘The Power of the Dog’ moment but it’s not far off.
Similar to how the solo violin piece during the title credits captivates the audience, the movie slowly immerses viewers in the pain of the lead characters through surreal performance. The characters’ agony appears to have tormented their core which is evident in the inevitable stoop in their stance. Yet, as they embrace reality, that burden seems to melt away.
Mammootty is a marvel to watch portraying Mathew’s struggles to hold back his urge to reveal his reality to the world while suffocated by the fear of consequences. Observe, like a Zen master, and you will notice the subtle feminine touch Mammootty brings to his voice and gestures after Mathew comes out about his sexuality. It’s a testament to his complete acting prowess. In the final shot, when Jeo Baby shows Thankan observing, or rather relishing Mathew in the rearview mirror from the driving seat of Mathew’s car, Mammootty subtly portrays the effeminate side of Mathew with a slight turn of his hand. There’s no caricaturish obscenity, unlike some actors who have displayed stereotypes while portraying gay men.
Omana’s pain is two-fold – having lost 20 years of her life with a homosexual man whom she now wants to help come out. The mischief in Jyothika’s eyes, which made her a heartthrob of millions, transforms into Omana’s pain and reflects Mathew’s agony and Chaachan’s anguish. Yet, she isn’t miserable; her eyes are always moist with kindness born out of her long suffering. Even when Mathew lies about his sexuality in the family courtroom, she looks at him and responds with compassion. In a subsequent scene, Omana and Mother Mary are depicted poetically, divided by a wall and an altar.
Former Kerala PSC chairperson RS Panicker, as Chaachan (Mathew’s father), carries the burden of parents who fail to support their children’s sexuality. He speaks only three times in the movie, but his silence speaks volumes. In his silence, he echoes the guilt of a father who betrayed his son at a crucial juncture of his life. It’s pleasantly surprising to see how he holds his ground as an actor amid powerhouse performances by Mammootty and Jyothika.
Jeo Baby offers only crumbs of Thankan, much like he kept words away from Chaachan. Yet, those bits and pieces are enough for Sudhi Kozhikode to establish his seasoned acting prowess. In every frame, he conveys Thankan’s concern for Mathew. Watch out for the rain scene just before the interval – the first combination scene of Thankan and Mathew. Thankan, after collecting a pamphlet from Mathew, walks out into an unannounced rain that forces everyone, including Mathew, to take shelter in shops. Drenched yet unhurriedly, he opens his car, gets in, and through the veils of droplets running on his windshield, he looks at Mathew with desire and despair burning in his eyes. He then drives his car in reverse, clutching tight the pamphlet with Mathew’s face printed on it. Though he wants to alleviate his partner’s pain, knows his boundaries well.
Also, there is the filmmakers’ pain which is more of their annoyance with society and its various agencies like religion and party politics. Jeo tells his story of inclusiveness against the backdrop of the Christian community, a political party that fuelled Kerala’s renaissance, an opposition that claims to be the true secular outfit and constant reminders of the presence of the fascist ‘others’ (mattavanmaar) And it comes out as an expression of his anger towards one’s fundamentalism and the others’ pseudo-modernist claims. It seems like the frustrated filmmaker wanted to show them how beautiful and enriched life could be for everyone if they embraced the true essence of the Renaissance. There is a priest who knows where the boundary of the church ends and the personal space of individuals begins. The party with a revolutionary background is shown as opportunist and the opposition is shown as willing to fight fair accepting the sexuality of the opposing candidate and understanding the plight he is going through.
Then comes the final act where the filmmaker shows us how it would be to live in an ideal society. The triumph of being true to one’s self and others. Jeo Baby skillfully smuggles his politics into the pain of these characters, creating a poignant narrative that resonates beyond the screen.