‘We were like Mathew & Omana’: A gay man’s ex-wife pens letter to Jeo Baby, Mammootty

Sreelatha Nelluli writes about her 20-year marriage with a gay man, the gradual, painful and transformative process of coming out, the relevance of ‘Kaathal’, and where the film possibly went wrong.
Mammootty and Jyothika in Kaathal - The Core
Mammootty and Jyothika in Kaathal - The Core

Spoiler alert: This letter contains major spoilers including story and plot points

Dear Jeo Baby and Mammootty sir, 

This week, my ex-husband Rajesh Pandathil and I went to a movie theatre, the first time since COVID-19, to watch your movie Kaathal - The Core. Rajesh’s brother-in-law had watched the film and called to tell us that “it’s your story.” We are a couple like Mathew and Omana, a homosexual man married to a heterosexual woman. We too recently got divorced after a marriage that lasted 20 years. We too have an 18-year-old daughter who stood by us and encouraged us to find our own paths. We are yet to encounter another couple like us off-screen. So we were curious, excited, and also worried at the prospect of seeing someone live a similar life, albeit on screen.

Jeo Baby, thank you for making this movie. This is definitely a story that needs to be told. And Mammootty, thank you, sir, for essaying the role of a closeted homosexual man with such finesse. I loved your expressions, constantly confused and almost scared. You have understood and embodied this man. 

I like the warmth between Omana and Mathew, the protagonists of Kaathal. I like the care they have for each other at least towards the end of the film. I love the scene where Femi, the couple’s daughter, after having a brief and candid conversation with her father, watches him walk away with care, concern, and love. As someone who lived through some of the issues portrayed in the film, I know these are what makes any relationship deep and meaningful.

Rajesh and I got a divorce a few months ago and were planning to write about our life. This was not in pursuit of some quick fame, but because we thought our society still lacked awareness, and that it might help other couples like us who are trapped in similar marriages. In the darkness of the movie theatre, which reminded us of the symbolic closet that we used to be in (yes, the moment he came out to me 15 years ago, I too entered that closet with him), we both cried our eyes out. It was triggering and cathartic at the same time to watch Omana and Mathew. And now that you have made this movie, it gives us a context to tell our story.

Back home after watching Kaathal, we kept analysing it and reminiscing about how we lived our life. There’s a lot to tell both of you about this, but in this open letter, let’s focus only on the coming out process that’s pivotal to this film.

Coming out is a long-drawn, painful, confusing, transformative, and spiritual experience. More importantly, it is not a single event, as the brilliant trans woman actor and activist Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju puts it in her Mashable India interview with Siddhaarth Aalambayan

When Rajesh first came out to me as homosexual around 2008, he said he thought he might be gay, but he wasn’t sure. Neither was I, though I had sensed something was amiss in our physical relationship. He would later tell me that he was not ready to face himself yet at that point; that he wasn’t ready yet to accept himself.

For the longest time, I thought it was because of me. It affected my confidence, it confused me. I had no reason to doubt his sexuality. After all, I loved him right from the day I first met him, at the University of Calicut campus where we both studied. He was a carefree, slightly unkempt young man with wide brown eyes, who looked like Soumitra Chatterjee in Aparajito. And it was he who proposed marriage. 

We were great together, best of friends. We did not live a template life and were proud of that. 

So when he brought up his sexuality, I hoped that he was just confused, and that everything would work out. Long commutes, long hours of work, raising a toddler, the city of Mumbai, and life in general kept us busy. I started reading up on LGBTQIA+ stories. We started discussing and learning together. He slowly started sharing his childhood experiences, his love for dance, his fear of crackers, and the mockery he had to go through growing up in a little village in Kerala. 

We didn't know what to do. It took a couple more years for us to consult an expert. The famous south Mumbai sexologist, whom we could hardly afford, spoke compassionately and gave us a verdict: he was gay indeed.

Then started the journey of coming to terms with reality. Whenever our daughter was away, an uncomfortable silence descended upon us. The silence encompassed us. It took us into its dungeon and kept us captive. We had no friends other than the parents of our daughter’s playmates, whom we temporarily and rather superficially bonded with. We could not express our situation to anyone. Rootless, wordless, we floated.

Rajesh would later say his life and existence turned into a huge lump of guilt around this time. We both navigated the precarious terrains bordering depression. I took a sabbatical from work to pursue translation and to make sense of all that was going on. What kept us going was the love and care we felt for each other, and of course, the joys and challenges of bringing up our child together. 

In the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court judgement that reinstated Section 377 (which criminalised homosexuality as an unnatural offence) of the Indian Penal Code, Rajesh came out to a few close friends and co-workers in 2014. He wrote, under a pseudonym, about his experiences as a closeted and married gay man.

Coping was still not easy. We consulted various counsellors seeking advice. We walked into the Humsafar Trust office, wondering if we could meet another couple like us. The counsellor there discouraged us saying most couples in our situation ended up in nasty fights and bitter breakups.

Over the years, we slowly started growing new shoots. I moved to Pune with our daughter to find a job. There, I made some friends for life, some kind ears, some companionship. It was those women who first asked me why I was sacrificing my life. I shuddered at the thought of entering dating sites, I felt I was not cut out for it. It took some more years for me to find the courage to do so. Then some virtual companionship, some illusion, some heartache. We plodded along. 

Rajesh and I had started talking about divorce, though we would always put it off for later. 

We used to have open discussions about gender and sexuality at home and used to attend pride parades along with our daughter. We were consciously preparing her. So one day, when I inadvertently told her about Rajesh’s sexuality, she was shocked, but soon came to terms with it. She had much more awareness and courage than we had and we’re proud and grateful to have her. 

At long last (15 years after he first came out to me), we told our family this year. Our parents are old, and fragile. They were heartbroken to know that we had decided to part ways. But they stood by us. Our families are rather conservative. But they loved us and it was that love that made them accept us for who we are. We are blessed to have them. 

I say all this only to explain how entangled and gradual the coming out process is, especially for those who are in a wedlock. But Omana and Mathew seem to have it all fast-tracked by the script writers and the director. On our way back from the movie theatre, Rajesh tells me that if he were Mathew, he would have died by suicide. “Coming out is not like jumping across a line to the other side. Far from that, I would say primarily it is a long process of self acceptance. For someone as old as Mathew, it is definitely going to be an emotional affair. Remember how we navigated the initial years?”

Just imagine! In mere 30-40 days (from submitting nomination papers to the date of election results), he is made to accept his sexuality, get a divorce, mend his relationships, and help his ex-wife find a partner.

As for Omana, she’s portrayed as caring and compassionate when the movie doesn’t show us any reason for her to be so. In the famous “ente daivame” scene (which incidentally melted my heart), Omana asks Mathew if he didn’t need a life of his own. What had Mathew done to deserve such concern and compassion from Omana? After all, he never came out to her. Instead, he denied her physical needs and her right to get a divorce while getting his own physical and emotional needs fulfilled with Thankan, his long-term partner. Is Omana another pativrata, eternally giving and forgiving, even when she gets nothing in return?  

I am not saying that Kaathal is a bad or irrelevant movie. It is definitely important for taking up a topic that deserves much discussion and awareness. It lends voice to the voiceless. All I am saying is that it could have been treated with much more care, sensitivity, and depth. Without that, it feels like a “historic victory” for the party, Jeo Baby, or Mammootty.

Yours truly,

Sreelatha Nelluli

This article is written with Rajesh’s consent and liberal inputs.

Sreelatha Nelluli is an IT professional based in Bangalore. She is also a poet and translator. Views expressed are author's own.

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