Four stalwarts of the Tamil film industry come together in a bittersweet anthology by Netflix to explore the social paradigms of sin. Paava Kadhaigal, literally 'sin stories', stands out as a bold attempt to amplify the voices of the deviant and defiant youth.
Who is the real propagator of a sin? The victim, who becomes a burning effigy of social disapproval, an embodiment of all that is averse to 'public morality'? Or the perpetrator of that victimhood, whose actions proved violative of the general public's moral conscience? As is often the case with public psyche, largely constituted of the rot and rigidity of conservatism, it is the perpetrator who goes scot-free, while the victim's humanity is reduced to archaic notions of 'dishonour' and 'impurity'. Paava Kadhaigal welcomes you to reassess these metrics of 'crime' and the paradox inherent in its social perceptions.
In Thangam, Sathaar calls Sarvanan her 'thangam' or 'precious', and while the love is never reciprocated, the warmth of their friendship and his acceptance will resonate within her till she breathes her very last. It is this very bonding that sets in motion the events of the tragedy that is Thangam. At a cursory glance, Thangam is a story of forbidden love with a screenplay of volatile verses of visual poetry: gone even before you can process what wave of emotion hit you. A closer look unveils a commentary on the vicious apathy of our society. The reality painted by the filmmaker is sinister and hard-hitting.
As Sathaar bangs the doors of conservatism locking out her existence, begging to be saved, and her cries permeate across time into Sarvanan and Sahira's hard-fought marriage, a slow change is affected: It is their families that get locked out of their joy this once; it is the unconditional acceptance that Sahira promises her newborn.
But Thangam has also received its fair share of criticism from the trans community for token representation. The sensitive portrayal of marginalization experienced by the trans community in our society fell short of casting a trans actor for the role. Is the emotionally intelligent writing in Thangam hiding hypocrisy within its folds? With Thangam, the filmmaker sought to expose the rigid heteronormativity of our society as a villain but ended up exposing the struggle faced by the trans community to even get basic representation.
Perhaps the weakest link of Paava Kadhaigal is Love Panna Uttranum. With insensitive writing and dialogue barely hiding scorn and prejudice, this is a far cry from the profundity of other shorts in the series. Narratives are opened up, and tense scenes are carefully built, but without any resolution whatsoever. The movie is hard pressed to decide its genre. Here, a confusing mess of emotions blends into a displeasing colour.
The film begins with a short note on inter-caste love and honour killing, tries introducing comic characters to a grim murder, does an immediate roundabout to mystery/thriller, makes an utter mockery out of a daughter attempting to come out as a lesbian to her father, and then ends in the blink of an eye. Needless to say, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the viewer.
The fairytale ending, which ignores every grim scenario portrayed in the film, destroys any logic that the script retained and appears to be a mockery of the parental acceptance that every queer kid yearns for. This ending takes away from the rest of the narrative to the point of revealing that the protagonist's identity was a mere deus ex machina for moving the narrative forward, a tool that the filmmaker chose to discard as soon as possible.
Perhaps the subjects of casteism, sexuality, and honour killing can be dealt with in a humorous manner. But certainly not if the humour is written with raging insensitivity and slapstick comedy that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Nevertheless, a word must be put in for Kalki Koechlin's strong acting. She plays her role with a stunning sincerity to what the movie screenplay presumably envisaged as the original goal.
Vaanmagal, or 'daughter of the skies', is an exquisite commentary on honour, internalised misogyny, and revenge. The ordinariness of everyday draws one in with high relatability, and a sudden turn of events then leaves the same viewer fraught with anger and helplessness. As a family grapples with the aftermath of a brutal assault on their daughter, a careful insight is built into the everyday struggle of being born a woman in India.
While the mother is busy instructing her elder daughter on the rubrics of honour and modesty, ingraining into her the feeling of shame that society shackles young girls with from the very outset itself, the younger one goes through something that makes the mother question her entire worldview. In a powerful scene, we encounter Mathi wondering if she should in fact kill her own daughter to preserve family honour, and then giving a vehement speech against the impunity with which such crimes reduce the personhood of a female to 'purity'.
Vaanmagal's implicit commentary on the law's incapability to deal with crimes against women is visible in a tussle of two extremes: while the parents feel utterly helpless in bringing the perpetrator to indictment, going so far as to hide their daughter, the brother resorts to an eye for an eye in savagely attacking the criminal. Legal approach isn't even advised by the narrative, showing how hopeless the filmmaker is about the competency of law.
Oor Iravu moves akin to a slow thriller. The tones of the movie, and the audience's collective memories of similar incidents doing the rounds of news, all build-up to the haunting climax. We are so caught up in the everyday nuances of social hierarchy, that we fail to notice when they make demons out of us.
Sai Pallavi is ethereal as Sumathi, the once estranged daughter now reunited with her family for the celebration of her pregnancy. Prakash Raj, who plays her father, is unsurpassable as always. There is a quiet determination to the character of Sumathi, a dignified defiance towards her family, and yet a radiant joy at being welcomed back. Not once does she suspect the horrors that might await her within the secure folds of her childhood home.
The idea of filial betrayal is farthest from the viewer's mind, rising from deep slumber in the murkiest recesses of the mind as visuals darken with every scene. The slow, but steady punch then seems to hit like a bolt out of the blue, and the viewer is too engrossed in Sai Pallavi's embodiment of an enraged, but dying Sumathi, to feel the pain, except at a profoundly emotional level.
The slow horror of Oor Iravu's screenplay is based in the familiarity and warmth of its scenes: a daughter searching for her father, a family sitting down for dinner (together, after so long -reunited even in the face of social opposition). Only a rewatch makes you realise that perhaps the father had been trying to hide from his daughter the entire time. Such is the strength of Oor Iravu that words do not do it justice.
To conclude, Paava Kadhaigal is undoubtedly a strong commentary against the social evils perpetrated in the name of archaic notions disguised as tradition. Notwithstanding a few hiccups, it largely manages to justify its cause of social activism and deals beautifully with highly sensitive themes. Hopefully, with a growing public consciousness about wrongs meted out to marginalised communities, this kind of sensitive filmography will become a norm rather than an exception.