Anyone familiar with legendary Italian filmmaker, poet and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini’s philosophy knows that he laid emphasis in his films on what critics describe as a “celebration of the male body”. And yet, unlike many other filmmakers who worked or continue to dwell on male homosexual themes, Pasolini, who was gay, never degraded women in order to attract attention to the subject by using contrived tactics.
This is why the new movie Kaathal — The Core, starring Mammootty and Jyothika as a couple in a dysfunctional marriage, reminds us of Pasolini although the setting is far removed in terms of time and social context. The film does not look down upon either male or female protagonists, since both are wronged by patriarchal structures in one way or the other. The film has a whiff of anti-conformism, the abundance of which made Pasolini the most controversial intellectual of the 1960s and 1970s in his country.
The female lead Omana is an attractive-looking mother whose college-going, basketball-playing daughter, like many in Gen-Z, has progressive values. But for all her stunning looks, Jyothika is unhappy for reasons that we learn shortly after the movie begins: she is denied sex by her partner, Mathew, who is gay. A scene from the 1981 film Montenegro comes to mind. Susan Anspach, famous in real life for mothering a child with Jack Nicholson whom she never married, plays the unhappy and vengeful wife Marilyn Jordan. Marilyn, blessed with a sensuous face and built like a ballet dancer, is a trophy housewife for her jet-setting husband. Circumstances and recklessness take her to a gypsy camp, which she sets afire. Later, she poisons her family, all of whom die.
A bedroom scene in both films is notable. Lying next to her husband, Marilyn makes gestures demanding intimacy and probably sex but is snubbed, not cruelly but smoothly. In Kaathal, feminine angst appears in a subtler fashion. The husband doesn’t acknowledge his shortcomings as a partner even in his movements or expressions, but the wife does, especially when she turns her back to him and keeps her eyes open, feigning to be asleep. Presumably, the male partner sees the status quo as comforting. The wife is too restless to sleep, confirming her pain in being outrightly rejected. In fact, what is smooth for the man is cruelty for the woman who wants her partner not to treat her like a queen but at least satisfy her needs. One cannot substitute love with respect. One of these cannot be used as a justification for the lack of the other. Any such arrangement for the sake of projecting the image of a ‘perfect couple’ or ‘happy family’ comes under sharp attack in the movie.
Omana strikes with enormous deftness, with finesse, but her goal is not revenge like Marilyn in Montenegro. She simply wants to drive home a strong message and, thanks to her graceful yet stern stance, she wins over those people, including her kin, who had initially insisted on her silence.
The film, directed by Jeo Baby, written by Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria, and produced by Mammootty’s film production company, is very much set in the Indian and semi-rural context in terms of characters, their aspirations, and their lives. This is why the woman who stands up for her rights surprises the viewer because she is not just thinking of her own rights and desires, but those of her husband, too, a man who is out of place in a man-to-woman, conventional marriage.
That an actor of the superstar stature of Mammootty had the guts to finance and star in a movie that pitches him as a gay person is remarkable. It is no doubt a risky proposition, certainly for those who want to play safe in the extremely judgemental environment that Kerala has lately become. For the massive fan-following who have followed his decades-long career, his most memorable roles mostly portray him as a daring man who exudes macho vibes, even to the point of toxic masculinity.
As with many top-class Malayalam films, the film is not unidimensional. It brings in political and religious contexts and demonstrates how the political is personal, and how individuality is often second to community demands in India. Mammootty plays a pious Christian who is reluctantly coopted to campaign for a Leftist party with an eye to make inroads into the typical upper-class Christian constituency in a local by-election. It is in this political heat of electioneering that his wife’s divorce notice is hurled at him like a bomb. Soon, the semi-rural locality is abuzz with the knowledge of his male partner named Thankan, who, unlike Mathew, is not married.
Used to his double life, Mathew doesn’t agree to the divorce, falling back on self-denial, notwithstanding support from certain groups including his broad-minded daughter. The issue gets dragged to court. Courtroom proceedings reveal how the wife had to demand or plead for sexual pleasure so that the husband “yielded” four times in two decades. The couple had a child thanks to those few encounters.
To everyone’s surprise, the political party doesn’t withdraw his candidature despite a likely backlash from conservative voters. Their policy not only keeps Mathew in the reckoning for a political role in the area but also under the spotlight over the divorce case.
This movie has the potential to acquire a global dimension due to its juxtaposition of family and politics, sexuality and respectability, privacy in marriage and public image. Religion, too, especially due to its esteemed representatives, is shown as complicit in promoting silence and the status quo. The lawyers, young people, and many people who were shown early on as conservatives, finally throw their weight behind the wife. The film’s “happily ever after” is in stark contrast with conventional Indian romances.
Not so surprisingly, the local reaction to this movie, especially from the common folk and a section of religious bodies, has so far been angry and vicious. Religiously motivated comments flood social media and comment boxes on articles and videos about the film. Some Muslims are furious at their role model Mammootty for portraying such a role that goes against their beliefs. Some Christians are upset about the “trashing” of their religion by linking a Christian family with homosexuality. Gulf countries such as Qatar and Kuwait have banned the movie.
The homophobic reactions certainly prove the film’s point in exposing the hypocrisies within the folds of religions and certain groups to hush up the wide prevalence of homosexuality in society. It also spotlights the pressure to conform that pushes hundreds of thousands of gay men and women into heterosexual marital unions only to live lives filled with unease, tension, and hardship.
On the other hand, on a national scale, film critics have lauded the film, commenting that Kaathal, like Jeo Baby’s earlier blockbuster The Great Indian Kitchen, will hold a mirror to our duplicitous lives where everything needs to be sacrificed or capitulated to preserve honour or male privilege.
This film is not just about homosexuality but also about the courage it takes to speak up about it even if it breaks family and social barriers — which, again, was one of Pasolini’s enduring legacies, as evident as his obsession for close-ups that you can also see in Kaathal.
The film’s triumph lies in redefining both femininity and masculinity.
Omana’s firm decision — without malice — is an assertion of her sexuality and rights as a woman in a society that prefers to dust both under the carpet. Meanwhile, Mammootty continues to inspire by showing how far he has evolved as an actor, even to the point of playing roles that carry the risk of making him unpopular among his diehard fans in the short term. A manly superstar such as him enacting a gay character not only creates space for homosexual themes in mainstream cinema but also expands the width of masculinity itself.