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Kathaal – The Core: A Triumphant Achievement For Indian (Queer) Cinema

Kaathal – The Core is easily the most intricate display of complexities of being gay in Indian cinema. Led by powerful performances, it’s a heartbreaking and haunting journey from start to finish.

Note: The following review contains spoilers for Kaathal – The Core.

Kaathal – The Core (love, the core) might very well be to Indian cinema, what Joyland is to its Pakistani counterpart. Featuring Mammootty in the lead playing a gay man, the film tackles homosexuality in a way that’s true to the experience of so many people in India, both queer and those who are a part of the mask. With Jeo Baby (of The Great Indian Kitchen fame) at the helm, the film’s release was riddled with expectations. And it delivers. What it does even better is refrain from using the trauma of queer people as a talking point. Instead, the movie portrays shame through silence, and goes into everydayness of living with a lie and coming to terms with it. The movie is fundamentally about human relations.

The bollywood movies before this which have delved into queerness were mostly embedded with dramatic flair or a comedic trope. The only rare case was probably Badhaai Do (2022), which did suffer from its own demerits. Kaathal subverts all this by refusing to be a preachy social drama. It simply follows Mathew, who is contesting local panchayat elections. Erstwhile, Omana, his wife of 20 years has filed for divorce, on the basis of suffering mental cruelty as Mathew is a homosexual. The rest of the film follows the divorce case as Mathew struggles to go through the election, while also coming to terms with his sexuality.

Also read: Badhaai Do: A Marriage of Convenience Provokes Laughter and some Conversations

Shame as the axis

Kaathal – The Core will always be revered as a classic that truly attempts to change how queer stories are portrayed on our screens. It is earnest and heartbreaking in all the right ways, placing shame as the axis of the conflict. We see Mathew feeling and going through everything but unable to utter a single word about his predicament until the very end when he asks his father about how he assured him years ago that once he marries, everything will change and become “normal” but nothing has. The divorce case also follows along the same axis where the question of a false case being charged against Mathew based on personal issues is raised against Omana, who is simply seeking divorce, and no compensation of any kind. Extending outside the film, the ruminations on language of queerness are also quite interesting, explored by Theres Sudeeo for The Print here.

Everything comes down when Mathew’s father comes as a witness and simply tells everyone that he knew Mathew was gay because he has known this since his childhood. And what might seem strange is actually the core of the human connection formed here – the bond between Omana and Mathew’s father. Omana mentioned how she would have left earlier but stayed because of Mathew’s father, and how Mathew never talked much with his father. That is also resolved towards the end where Mathew breaks down lamenting how it didn’t turn out like his father assured him.

It’s as much about Mathew as it’s about Omana
I truly do not know how to feel about both of them. There’s an ache that we see in Omana throughout the movie and hesitance in Mathew to come to terms with his sexuality. Both their lives have been a facade for so many years, that there’s only so much truth to it. In India, it is not common for gay men to marry women, mostly out of family pressure and proceed to have kids with them as well. Omana is one such woman and it pains to see her realization of how her life was a lie and how Mathew still isn’t accepting it.

When Mathew finally says “Sorry,”, laughs it off nervously, and breaks down, it is painful to watch but also seems like the inevitable consequence. It is unlike any coming out scene, that’s trying to make up for the loss of a life, for so many years, of what could have been. Having said that, what’s truly agonizing is that this is the reality of many queer people. And it might be the reality of many gay men in the future as well. Made in Heaven has also explored the kind of loneliness this brings in and what role parents play, but Kaathal is just exceptional.

Also read: How ‘Made in Heaven’ Brought My Mom and Me Closer

Parents do play an important role

Mathew and Omana have a daughter who is a college student and understands the situation. She tells him that she knew about the divorce and doesn’t hate him, she is just angry at him and also sad with how everything has unfolded. This sense of understanding also extends to Omana’s side of the family. There are multiple moments where we see the characters wanting to say so much to each other but they’re unable to. This is what shame does to people, it silences them and kills them from within. The film clearly shows the role of parents in instilling this shame, in what culminates as a breakdown between Mathew and his father, and Mathew and Omana. 

The only weak aspect of the movie was in dealing with the narrative around Thankan. While I believe the story rightfully explores the bond between Mathew and Omana, Thankan’s character was the one who would have nowhere to go if he was boycotted in society. Mathew did win the election, stayed connected with his family, and came together with Thankan at the end; but Thankan was the one who suffered trolling on the streets. For Mathew, even the political party supported him, though it might be for the sake of appearing as progressive; for Thankan, there wasn’t this support. He was the ‘other man’ in the story who still desired Mathew and a detailed exploration of his state of mind would have aided the movie in my opinion.

Verdict: Kaathal – The Core is easily the most intricate display of complexities of being gay in Indian cinema. Led by powerful performances, it’s a heartbreaking and haunting journey from start to finish. Perhaps, the only critique I have to offer is the lack of emphasis on Thankan as a character, though the ending suggests it’s a bittersweet full circle moment that keeps hope alive. It is with this truth at the core of the movie that Kaathal breaks and shatters your heart over what is a happy ending, which makes it an exceptionally well-made film.

This fantastic product of cinema is playing in theaters near you and will soon be available for streaming.

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Rajeev completed their under graduation in Political Science Hons. from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi in 2020. They graduated with Masters in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2022 and were a participant at the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute, University of Iowa for the 2021-22 session. They have been the recipient of Mavelinadu Collective’s grant for non-fiction for the first issue of Debrahminising Gender. Their work can be found in EPW, Women’s Link Journal, Shuddhashar, Gaysi Family, Feminism in India and Hindu College Gazette among others. Their research interests include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and masculinities.

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