Jeo Baby’s breakout film The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) draw widespread acclaim. Among the fans of Baby’s unflinching portrayal of the submissiveness expected of young married women was Mammootty.

The Malayalam movie star, no stranger to unconventional movies through his long career, liked the script that Baby was shopping. Written by Adarsh Sukumaran and Paulson Skaria, Kaathal – The Core revolves around a candidate for a local election who is closeted.

Mathew’s repressed sexual identity inconveniently crops up during campaigning when a divorce petition filed by his wife Omana is listed for a court hearing. Tamil actor Jyotika plays Omana, who sees her battle to free herself from a loveless marriage as an opportunity for Mathew to come out too.

Unlike The Great Indian Kitchen, which was premiered on the streaming platform Neestream (and is now available on Prime Video), Kaathal has been running in cinemas since November 23. Kaathal has also been selected for the Malayalam Cinema Today section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 8-15).

For 72-year-old Mammootty’s massive fanbase, his casting as a gay man is nothing less than seismic. For admirers of realist Malayalam cinema, Kaathal’s sensitive handling of a hot-button issue is further proof of the risk-taking appetite of this language industry.

“The response has been huge and totally unexpected,” Baby told Scroll. “I respect the audiences. Homosexuality is still a sensitive topic in Kerala. We have had films on this subject like Moothon [by Geethu Mohandas, starring Nivin Pauly], but they were tagged as indie films. Because of Mammootty and Jyotika, people have come to watch the film, and it is doing very well.”

Jyotika in Kaathal – The Core (2023). Courtesy Mammootty Kampany.

Kaathal portrays Mathew as a buttoned-up man who is persuaded to stand for a bye-election. When Mathew’s truth leaks out, the community party he is representing as well as the opposing candidate’s campaign managers try to milk the news. Omana, who shares a teenaged daughter with Mathew, is unwavering in her decision to end the marriage.

Despite ample potential for melodrama, Kaathal approaches the explosive situation with palatable subtlety. Mathew’s agony and Omana’s plight are communicated mostly through stony silences.

The understated movie is more interested in examining the shifting relationships between Mathew, the man to whom he is linked, Omana and Mathew’s father. The film includes its version of the moment in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), when the cowboy Ennis tenderly touches a shirt worn by his lover Jack.

Kaathal is decidedly family-friendly in its treatment of homophobia, even as it gives equal weightage to Omana’s decision to walk out on Mathew. The movie takes place after the scrapping of Section 377.

Baby and the writers were keen on ensuring that Omana’s perspective gets reflected. It’s not easy to be openly gay in Kerala even today, Baby added. “The film is about the drama that happens to each of the characters, all of whom are connected to one another.”

When Baby initially approached Mammootty in 2022, there was no producer in sight. “I told Mammootty that I would get a producer if he agreed to do the film – then he said he would produce it himself through his company, Mammootty Kampany,” Baby said.

Kaathal – The Core (2023).

The acting legend gave the writers important tips, such as where to place the interval and how to tweak certain scenes to increase their impact. He improvised a line in one of Mathew’s most important exchanges with Omana – and then offered to reshoot the scene if it wasn’t working. The movie retained Mammootty’s intervention.

“Mammootty has always done different roles throughout his career,” Baby observed. “Once he agreed to do my film, everything became so easy. There were no challenges as such because of Mammootty. He surprised me in every scene. I have not really directed him, but sat behind the monitor and watched him perform.”

One of the film’s sweetest moments, which speaks to the bond between the couple that is unshaken despite their differences, takes place in the courtroom. When Omana is called to depose against Mathew, she gives him her handbag. He clutches the bag throughout a testimony that paints him in an unflattering light.

Mammooty suggested casting Jyotika to make the project more acceptable, Jeo Baby said. “She was excited, she hasn’t done this kind of a film before,” he added. “She dedicated herself to the film.”

The acclaim garnered by The Great Indian Kitchen has given Baby the confidence to stick his neck out. That film, which shatters myths about domestic goddesses by painstakingly revealing the drudgery experienced by women in the name of cooking and cleaning, has yielded a Tamil remake and is being retooled in Hindi with Sanya Malhotra.

The Great Indian Kitchen got pan-Indian appreciation, and some things are now easier for me,” said Baby, who began his directing career with 2 Penkuttikal in 2016. “But some things are still difficult since our film industry depends on stars.” Fortunately for him and Kaathal, that star happened to be Mammootty.

Jeo Baby at the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2022. Courtesy Sai K Shanmugam. CC BY-SA 4.0

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Why Malayalam breakout film ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ is ‘the story of most Indian women’