The opening credits of Paava Kadhaigal (translation: 'Sin Stories') lead you into the predictable rendition of a woman's life (childhood, menstruation, marriage etc.). However, the splash of red all over is emblematic of the streaks of cruelty that often befall her. At the outset, all the stories have to be complimented for their exquisite set design, great cast and lovely music. They strike a chord with you and seamlessly weave your interest in the lives of those you root for.
Thangam (Translation: 'Dear one')
The story, fondly titled Thangam, opens with Saathar and her quest for love and validation. Being a trans woman in the 1800s, she is faced with public ridicule, harassment and bullying, all of which are familiar weapons of society against anyone different from the binary classifications of gender. The story perseveres to tell a gut-wrenching story of Saathar's travails, and it succeeds in part due to the brilliant efforts of Kalidas Jayaram and the rest of the cast. That said, it falters in its writing of the half-baked character of Saathar. The character is envisaged solely through her trans identity and is restricted from exploring other dimensions of her personality. This results in the audience feeling pity for her and sympathising with her because she is a trans person and not because she is a human being. This is also exclusionary as it still positions cisgender persons to view trans people as something out of the ordinary and to feel for them only if they face harassment, rape or, worse, murder. Writing as a cisgender woman, I understand that my voice is not the most authentic source for conveying the emotions and lived experiences of another; however, I believe that when reviewing art such as this, it is important to look at the characters that the author has created and evaluate whether they have authenticity and personality to them. It is when a writer creates a well-rounded individual that I feel art has won in this medium. Unfortunately, Thangam wasn't successful in its attempt to do so. In today's age, where beautiful multi-dimensional trans characters such as Shilpa and Kanchana (of Super Deluxe and Kanchana, respectively) are being written, the lack of effort cannot be excused.
Love Panna Uttranum (Translation: 'Let Them Love')
The second film in Paava Kadhaigal takes the route of a dark comedy and I have to applaud them for this effort. The story revolves around twin daughters of a local politician named Veerasimman, Aadhilakshmi and Jyothilakshmi, and how their respective romantic choices wreak havoc on their family. I enjoyed this movie for the most part as the tonal shift from the looming darkness of Thangam was refreshing. Yet it loses its grip towards the weak climax that was originally intended to be comic relief but comes out as a cowardly move on the part of the director, who chooses not to fully portray the social implications of homosexuality in rural and traditional India. Another problematic element was that even if the director had to have this climax, he could have avoided the epilogue at the end as it was markedly different from the emotion-heavy scenes that the movie had depicted earlier. It seemed like he got so confused between portraying comedy and giving a socio-political sermon that he decided to create a film that is partially representative of both and fully devoid of either. The sanctimonious speech about love and caste could also have been avoided to stay true to its intended genre of a dark comedy.
Vaanmagal (Translation: 'Daughter of the Skies')
Vaanmagal retells the devastating story of every woman in India who has experienced harassment in one form or the other, some being severe and extreme. But the story takes a different angle where they stress on the impact of harassment on the family and not on the victim as much. This is not a novel perspective and frankly, the visceral imagery and the lecherous dialogues played out during the rape scene can amount to second-hand trauma, so maybe directors do not need to take the route of vividly playing out such a scene when the same can be conveyed through other means. Take the example of Varathan (the 2018 Malayalam survival thriller), where the rape scene is not shown but later the character speaks of the harassment she was subjected to in an ambiguous manner, so we are not sure of what precisely happened to her, but it is enough to shock and enrage us into wanting to fight against injustice. Additionally, I found the artistic decision of directing a young girl to act out such graphic scenes grossly inappropriate for her mental health as well.
In terms of craft, Simran does a wonderful job as the mother of a rape survivor and takes us through the complex emotions of a woman birthed, raised and fed by patriarchy. It takes us back to another marvellous film of 2020, Thappad, which focused on women inheriting patriarchal responsibilities from other women in a way that one does not notice or question. Here, the same can be seen in Simran's internal monologue, as well as in one notable scene where she tells her daughter about the purity of the latter's body, which she needs to protect and preserve at all costs. This kind of pedestalisation of virginity is another reason the trauma surrounding rape is enhanced through the shame and social ostracism that society pronounces on a survivor. However, all these are issues that have been raised in countless movies of the modern era. One scene that particularly struck a note with me is where the character of the father, played by Gautham Vasudev Menon, completely breaks down in front of his wife as he cannot even fathom the amount of pain his daughter has gone through and conveys that he is ashamed to stand in front of her as a man. His tortured dialogue, dissecting each of his daughter's glances and the way she must think about him, cuts deeply and is a fresh perspective on how a family copes with painful events such as these. That said, I wish the film had ended on a dark note because the shift in Simran's temperament seemed unrealistic as she seemed to resolve her trauma and fears surrounding harassment and her daughter's future all too easily. The director could have laid some groundwork for this shift, which would have made this arc more believable.
Oor Iravu (Translation: 'One Night')
The last story in the instalment, Oor Iravu, is my personal favourite out of the lot and haunts me to this day. It is concerned with the relationship between a father and his daughter, and the twists and turns he goes through when she makes a choice that humiliates him. The incredible storytelling that never reveals any hint of its shocking and cruel ending and the excellent performances of Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj have to be commended for pulling together a modern-day masterpiece of a short story that leaves you hollow inside. What works for this sequence is in the details; the body language and facial expressions of Prakash Raj before and after the big reveal, the colour palette of the city and the village portraying the emotions that run deep beneath the two, the juxtaposition of a city household with a village household, and so on. All of these work to highlight the world of difference between the beliefs of those who reside in a world of 'culture' and those who abide by customs and traditions, the former being open to what this culture is and the latter refusing to let go.
The movie is also a deep and incisive look into casteism and the social atrocities that people have to face on account of the same, and Oor Iravu wins by showing the same through actions and metaphors, not mere words. It is also interesting to note that Oor Iravu has a long-drawn-out scene of violence, yet here the violence and the pain is necessary to the story and heightens its message instead of drowning it in drama. It reads like Tennyson's anti-war poetry; in carefully dissecting the trauma of caste discrimination, one feels the righteous rage and injustice necessary to extinguish it. In all the other stories, the message is conveyed through directly attacking the individual or by giving long speeches, whereas here, it is conveyed through the grieving yet remorseless eyes of a father. It is here that cinema truly achieves what it was created for.
The four stories weave together crimes against women, because at the end of the day, society seeks to attack the one that it has blindly accepted as inferior. The dichotomy lies in the fact that this same society which punishes women, also reveres them as "Devi" or "Shakti." They may be sins of honour and of pride, but it is no joke that the one who often suffers at the edge of the sword is the so-called Devi. Her honour is protected, revered and worshipped like no other, and her forsaking it like Jothilakshmi (from Love Panna Uttranum) or it being stripped away from her like Ponnuthayi (from Vaanmagal) is seen as an attack on the pride of a family, of a society and of a people. In their misguided effort to salvage this honour, they sacrifice those that they once held dear, and in fighting against those who sinned, they commit a greater sin. Who is the sinner here? The splash of red that fills a woman's life or the black-and-white background that refuses to see? I believe Paava Kadhaigal answers this question to the best of its abilities.