Directors: Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Vetri Maaran
Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Shanthnu Bhagyaraj, Anjali, Kalki Koechlin, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Simran, Sai Pallavi, Prakash Raj
Sudha Kongara's Thangam is the perfect start to Netflix's four-episode Paava Kadhaigal. It establishes the anthology's theme in the broadest and loosest sense, and this theme is "honour": maanam. Among the first images we get is that of Sathaar (Kalidas Jayaram) admiring himself in a mirror. "Himself" is probably not the right word. Sathaar would prefer "herself." She is saving up for a gender-reassignment surgery and refers to herself in the feminine, which must have been incredibly difficult to deal with in 1981, the time the film is set in. But then, with Sathaar, I suppose there wasn't exactly an option. With her swinging gait and lilting speech, she is not "manly" in the conventional sense – whether she wanted it or not, she was always "out". And so she probably thought she might as well go all out: line her eyes with kohl, dye her lips with betel juice, and hope that her love (for a man) is reciprocated.
This is a brilliant, unusual take on the idea of "honour", which we usually – in the movies, and in these "Love Jihad" times – associate with caste and religion. Here, the word is linked to gender. The question shifts from "What if you are a Hindu and fall for a Muslim?" or "What if you belong to an oppressed caste and marry someone from a dominant caste?" to "What if you are a man and want to be a woman?"
The best thing about Sathaar, at least for a while, is that she is no "victim", bemoaning her fate. She revels in how uncomfortable she makes people. She revels in double-meaning lines. And she is bracingly practical about her prospects. She knows who she wants, but once she realises it's not going to happen, she says to herself: "Okay, what next!" She does throw a sulking fit (she's not a saint, after all), but she gets over it. So when Tamil cinema's most celebrated ode to one-sided love (Oru Thalai Raagam) plays in the local theatre, the idea is grandly sentimental but the execution isn't. We are reminded of Sathaar's situation, but we aren't made to wallow in it.
Sudha makes a very interesting choice about having a key character off-screen as we are told what happened to him/her. One part of this section – which also involves Saravanan (Shanthnu Bhagyaraj) and Sahira (Bhavani Sre) – is seen through someone else's eyes. But when the other part begins – it's the dramatisation (with this so-far-hidden character now shown) – I found it too much, too melodramatic. But the emotional logic is sound: Sathaar's private pain is her own, and she herself (i.e. voluntarily) will not share it with anyone else. (Hence, the narration through someone else.) And Kalidas Jayaram makes you stick with Sathaar. There's something wonderfully dreamy and delicate about the actor, and without overplaying the man/woman split inside Sathaar, he brings to life a person – someone in a patriarchal, tradition-bound Kovai district who "dis-honours" her people through no fault of her own.
Along with the theme of "honour", I wonder if the four directors were also asked to give variations on the colour red. It's the shade of a shawl (or maybe a prayer mat) in Sudha's episode. It's the colour of a little girl's dress in Gautham Vasudev Menon's episode. It's the colour of blood in Vetri Maaran's episode. And in Vignesh Shivan's Love Panna Uttranum, it's a shade of light that falls on Anjali's face. She plays twins named Aadhi and Jothi. Both fall in love with candidates who'll dis-honour their family, especially their father Veerasimman (Padam Kumar) who goes about "supporting" inter-caste marriages in public. As in Thangam, the ghastliest occurrence is kept off-screen. (Remember this when you see Vetri Maaran's episode, where the ghastliest occurrence plays out in excruciating detail.) But the tonality is delightfully off, delightfully Vignesh Shivan.
Reviewing Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, I wrote: "I haven't laughed this hard over innocent men being snuffed out by a silencer-outfitted gun." Well, I haven't laughed this hard over a story with an honour-killing either. This is a welcome return to form for Vignesh Shivan, who had a rather generic outing with Thaanaa Serndha Koottam. His stamp is all over the place. The language is especially inventive. Watch out for a local man's pronunciation of the exotic Penelope's (Kalki Koechlin) name, or her lip-smacking punch line (in the form of a cuss phrase) towards the end. The episode is completely unpredictable, and the wacky camerawork (Theni Eshwar is the cinematographer) is utterly in sync, right from the early point Narikutti (Jaffer Sadiq) jumps off the back of a jeep.
The only misstep is a song, which underlines something we've already been seeing and hearing throughout the rest of the short. I felt this with the films by Sudha and Gautham, too. Vetri Maaran, wisely, avoids a musical interlude. He even (mercifully) avoids a background score, for a large part, and makes you see that a strong filmmaker doesn't need the manipulative crutches of music. (Of course, he can't afford to do this in a theatrical feature, but isn't that why we have OTT – so our filmmakers can free themselves in ways they cannot when making movies with The Audience™ in mind?) Vignesh Shivan's success is in making the outrageous seem organic. We should rightfully be appalled by his approach. Instead, it comes across as a perfect fit for the absurdity that is honour killing. He's pulled off something very tricky. Sometimes, black humour is the best revenge.
Gautham Vasudev Menon plays a Gautham Vasudev Menon Dad™ in the Gautham Vasudev Menon-directed Vaanmagal. (He's named Sathya.) In this episode, "honour" is filtered through the gaze of a conservative housewife (Simran, who's outstanding as Sathya's wife, Mathi) who still follows customs like "if you have your period, don't touch anything or I'll have to go about cleaning it". Each installment of the anthology opens with a song that depicts (via animation) the birth and growing up of a beloved daughter, a "chellam" as the lyrics put it. This sentiment resonates most with Vaanmagal and the Vetri Maaran episode, where the father calls his daughter "appa-ku romba pudicha ponnu..." Ponnuthayi (Angelina Abraham) is chellam of the Sathya-Mathi household, and when the unthinkable happens…
The director has the concept of maanam dealt with by everyone in the household: the father, the mother, the brother, and the older sister whose onset of puberty makes the younger one wish for a similar rite of passage. But she becomes an "adult" in a way no one could have expected. Simran is chilling in a scene where Mathi pours mugfuls of water on something that she now considers "polluted", hoping she can wash the pollution away. This is a woman who won't even take the plastic casing off the seats in the family car, so the seats stay "pure" forever. Even when talking of the female body, she refers to it in the "purest" of terms: as a temple. Imagine her plight when… The heart just stops when you get to the "did she really just do that?" scene. The act of physical violence perpetrated by her son seems almost irrelevant when compared to the psychological violence this woman unleashes.
Gautham is extremely moving in the scene where he says he feels naked, and it's a dimension we haven't seen in Tamil cinema: where you not just refer to a sexual act but imagine it. (Huge props to OTT for making these scenarios possible.) But the biggest surprise is that – if you follow the Netflix-recommended order of episodes – Vaanmagal contains a massive spoiler for Vetri Maaran's story, titled Oor Iravu. The little girl in Vaanmagal even resembles Sai Pallavi, who plays the daughter (named Sumathi) who marries a Dalit, Hari (Hari). Prakash Raj plays Sumathi's father, and his character is revealed in the screenplay's neatest trick. As the film opens, Sumathi is in her hometown, in her parents' house. She's searching for her father. CUT TO: a doorbell ringing. She opens the door, and "finds" her father outside. Only, this is a different timeline, and a different place (a big city). We get different palettes, too: the colour-graded warmth of the hometown portions versus the matter-of-fact coolness of the Sumathi-Hari household.
On the surface, Oor Iravu is the most "conventional" of the four episodes. The maanam issue is the one we have seen the most in the movies: dominant caste versus oppressed caste. It's not filtered through, say, gender, like in Sudha's film. The tone is dead-serious. There's no up-yours flippancy, like in Vignesh's film. The gaze is that of a patriarch: the Prakash Raj character. The mother (wonderfully played by Aathira) is sidelined by her husband's supremacy, unlike in Gautham's film. Even the "twist" is not much of a surprise, if you think back to Aadukalam and recall the camera trailing a man carrying a yellow plastic bag filled with cash. There's a similar waist-level shot here, around mid-point, and your antenna goes up. You know our focus is being sharpened. The shot means something. (Suresh Bala is the cinematographer.)
And yet, Vetri Maaran's is the most powerful, most gut-churning installment. There's a prolonged stretch of agony that seems endless: for the father, for the daughter, and for the audience. The house becomes a character of its own, with its clearly established geography. Sai Pallavi (who gets the more expressive part) and Prakash Raj (who gets to be more contained) are excellent. My favourite moment is when a pregnant Sumathi takes her father to her yoga class, and he waits outside. At one point, he looks in through the door and their eyes meet. A whole novel could be written about the thoughts running through the man's mind. Elsewhere, when he suddenly raises his voice amidst the silence of the house, it's chilling – all the more so because Vetri Maraan doesn't vulgarise his storytelling with a constant background score.
It may seem strange to say this, given Vetri Maaran's terrific run of films (even the solid Asuran seemed a "lesser" work only by his standards), but Oor Iravu is his best-directed work. His control is breathtaking, and I think the focussed storyline is at least one reason. Usually, he goes for multiple characters, multiple timelines – and this results in (inevitably) fragmented narratives where scene choreography is sometimes compromised. (He keeps cutting constantly.) Here, there is a lot of stay. This may be his most exquisitely framed film yet. If the Prakash Raj character's house is established with a single unbroken shot, we don't get a similar smoothness in Sumathi's apartment, where each room is presented with a cut. But nothing is exaggerated, nothing feels like a flourish. Right down to the small close-in on a character's face at the end, every choice feels just right.
I smiled at the touch where Hari is seen using a juicer, in contrast to the Prakash Raj character's household where the kitchen is filled with women (and only women). In a small way, it makes a bigger point – that the "roles" imposed on us by society are not rigid, that change is always possible. But maybe that's true only in a big city. Because once the narrative shifts to Sumathi's hometown, Hari is completely sidelined (or should we say "marginalised")! Sumathi's siblings speak longingly of the "free" life she leads but they know that by eloping with Hari, she has essentially ensured their imprisonment. Finally, Sumathi is "imprisoned", too. We get a line that says: Edhuvume maaraadhu. (Nothing will change.) Is this pessimism or simple, unvarnished reality? Vetri Maaran makes us wonder.