Law that shackles and liberates

A review of the Kaathal: The Core

*Ashita Sai Manohar

‘Kaathal: The Core’ is a movie directed by Jeo Baby that revolves around Mathew Devassy, a former bank secretary, who hesitantly enters politics by participating in a by-election. The film explores the intricacies of Devassy’s marriage, the pursuit of justice, and personal fulfilment within a close-knit village community.

The title, ‘Kaathal’ meaning “love” in Tamil and ‘The Core’ meaning a symbol of the essence aptly sums up the deep complexities of the relationships the movie portrays across different characters. The movie depicts the emotional turmoil of a married family man navigating local elections and the legal maze surrounding his hidden homosexuality.

The movie delves deep into Devassy’s roles as a husband, father, son, and political representative. Rather than succumbing to the conventional noise surrounding sexuality, the director focuses on understanding the human behind the issue, resonating with the recent legal discourse on same-sex marriage, as exemplified by the Supriya Chakraborty Anr. v. Union of India (2023) case.

The Individual

Devassy, a god-fearing family man, finds himself at the centre of a legal storm when his wife files for divorce. The layers of his character are masterfully peeled back, juxtaposing his public image as a morally upright political figure with the private struggle of accepting his homosexuality.

In one scene, Devassy exemplifies excellent skills as a people’s representative when called upon to “morally correct” a girl’s decision to choose her partner and marry him. When everyone expects him to reprimand her actions, he chooses to have a cordial conversation with the girl and her family about respecting her personal choice.

Despite being a reasonable and well-educated man, Devassy seems bound by societal norms after the divorce notice becomes public knowledge. He remains mostly silent as the news breaks in his town. In that instance, the very first person who understands his helplessness is his teenage daughter, who speaks to him from her heart, feeling sympathetic for her father. Devassy has no reply, almost as if it’s the first time he feels heard.

Source: Punwani, Umesh. “Kaathal – the Core Movie Review: 72-Year-Old Mammootty Does What No One From Across the Indian Cinema Would.” Koimoi, 30 Nov. 2023.

Even when Devassy visits his lawyer’s office with his party worker, he makes it abundantly clear that the party is not concerned with the divorce but merely proving Mr. Devassy “innocent.” Despite the Apex Court decriminalizing homosexuality, the idea that being homosexual is not an offence and nothing to be ashamed of has yet to permeate people’s minds. A reluctant Devassy, who otherwise would be able to accept his sexuality, is forced to remain silent due to the lewd and demeaning comments passed by those around him.

The Courtroom

The courtroom scenes, reminiscent of real-life legal battles, question societal norms and the delayed divorce proceedings. When the opposing lawyer questions why it took the wife 20 years to approach the court, his wife, Omana, replies that despite knowing her husband was homosexual, she decided to stay in the marriage because she knew he wasn’t a criminal as labelled by the law at the time. The lawyer then adds to the words of Justice Indu Malhotra, who penned the judgment for Navtej Singh Johar v. UOI: “History owes an apology to the members of the community,” an apology that extends to partners stuck in “beard marriages.” In this instance, the court draws from the judgment to include partners in marriages like the above to be provided with justice when approached. 

When the court proceedings reach its final moments and Devassey is at crossroads with the case, a member of a LGBTQ+ Rights Organization visits him on his way out of the court. He expresses his support to Devassey and empathized in the difficulty of coming out to others. Though Devassey did not respond he listened to him keenly. I believe a regulated support system and/or involvement of rights organization in these proceedings similar to the one shown in the movie is helpful in carrying out the process in a healthy manner. 

Source: Etimes.In. “’Kaathal: The Core’ OTT: When and Where to Watch Mammootty’s Drama Film.” The Times of India, 6 Jan. 2024

The film unearths the lack of warmth and love, two very human needs deprived from individuals like Devassy and Thankan. Thankan is a driving instructor  in the same town as Devassy and was his past lover. He is subjected to ridicule for his sexual orientation once news of the divorce spreads. Thankan is shunned by those around him and, at a vulnerable moment, expresses himself by saying, “Some people miss out on love because they’re scared of losing those who care about them.” At this moment, the audience discovers the human emotions behind the individual.

Source: Sowmya Rajendran, and Sowmya Rajendran. “The Demure Revolution of Kaathal: The Core’s Queerness.” Filmcompanion, 4 Dec. 2023

Despite the legal decriminalization of homosexuality, the movie underlines society’s slow acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals. Devassy’s reluctance to reveal his sexual orientation, even in the face of verbal penalization, highlights the ongoing battle against societal judgment.

The film ingeniously weaves in the personal and religious dimensions through the local priest’s stark division he draws when called upon to comment on the issue. The most unexplored yet bridging relationship in the case is Devassy’s with his father. His internal struggle with accepting his son’s sexuality is a turning point in the film, as his father was simultaneously the first person to be aware of his son’s sexuality and the one who tried to suppress it the most. This is evident in his actions, which include marrying Mathew away against his wish and having an unfriendly relationship with Thankan, his son’s past lover.

The Acceptance

In the film’s final moments, a heart-touching scene unfolds between father and son. The son questions his father, despite being raised with freedom, why he wouldn’t accept him regarding “this,” referring to his sexuality. He further asks, “What mistake did I make for you to never understand me?” The father, filled with regretful tears, replies, “It’s not you who erred; it was me!” This poignant apology reveals the damage caused by hiding one’s true self.

Source: Sidhardhan, Sanjith. “Kaathal the Core Director Jeo Baby – I Believe the Socially Constructed Idea of Family Is a Failure | Exclusive.” OTTPlay, 8 Jan. 2024

When Devassy apologizes to his wife, it finally concludes the divorce, allowing him to come to terms with what he always wanted to say out loud – to the person who always knew. His wife plays a crucial role in Devassy’s journey towards self-acceptance. 

In the landmark case of K.S Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) popularly known as the ‘Right to privacy’ case also commented on gender, sexual orientation and marriage in its judgement. It stated that privacy of the body and mind entitle individuals to physical and mental integrity, freedom of thought, belief, and self-determination. When applied to gender, this creates a private space safeguarding crucial elements of gender identity.

And most importantly to note, the judgment states that, ‘Family, marriage, procreation and sexual orientation are all integral to the dignity of the individual.’  The court clearly draws a link between what it means to enjoy a life of dignity and the right to self-determintation of one’s gender, sexual orientation, family and marriage. This vision of the Supreme court is materialized as the movie concludes. Devassey comes to term with his sexual orientation and his wife Omana can move forward and look for potential partners for marriage, both enjoying a life of dignity. 

Source: Raj, Vivek. Kaathal – the Core, Mammootty and Jyotika Film, Release Date Announcement Is Out, the Great Indian Kitchen Director Jeo Baby;, 3 Nov. 2023

In a climactic conclusion, the movie ends with Mathew’s triumphant electoral win. The director cleverly uses the law in this scene. While the law initially criminalized and ostracized individuals like Devassy, it ultimately liberates him from his inner torment and the difficulty of self-acceptance.

Another milestone achieved by the movie is its cast selection. As movies are a significant part of Indian culture, casting specific actors furthers the message the film aims to convey. By choosing actors like Mammootty and Jyothika, who are pan-Indian stars with a strong presence in South India, the director demonstrates his determination to reach a wider audience. Director Jeo Baby, renowned for his astute portrayal of social nuances, once again proves his mastery in blending symbolic interactionism with societal units like family, marriage, politics, and law.

‘Kaathal: The Core’, not only sheds light on the legal complexities surrounding same-sex relationships but also celebrates the triumph of love, acceptance, and the ongoing struggle for societal change. Jeo Baby’s directorial finesse shines through as he elevates a personal journey to a universal tale of liberation.

*Ashita Sai Manohar is a first year BA LLB (Hons) student at Gujarat national law university. Her interests include human rights, international law, international relations and constitutional law.