Vetrimaaran's 'Oor Iravu' with Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj is the best of the four films.

Actors Sai Pallavi, Simran, Kalidas Jayaram and Kalki Koechlin in Paava Kadhaigal anthology film
Flix Review Friday, December 18, 2020 - 13:43
Worth a watch

After Putham Pudhu Kaalai on Amazon Prime Video, the Tamil industry has come up with another anthology film for the OTT space (Over-the-Top) — Paava Kadhaigal which has just released on Netflix. The theme this time though is distinctly different from the light and frothy mood of the previous film although two of the directors in Paava Kadhaigal had worked on Putham Pudhu Kaalai too.

The four films, each directed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivn and Vetrimaaran, revolve on casteist and patriarchal notions of 'honour'. While caste violence has often been depicted in Tamil cinema as one community oppressing another, there haven't been too many instances where caste violence within the family is exposed. Films like Kaadhal and Gouravam have explored the subject in the past, and of late, directors such as Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran have been vocal about breaking the silence about caste on screen. In fact, the rise of anti-caste voices from within the Tamil film industry has led to films like Draupathi which blatantly glorify caste pride and even defend caste killings.

Further, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) harbours problematic ideas about representing caste on screen. While celebrating caste pride is not seen as casteist, even using the word 'Dalit', a political and social identity that oppressed people have chosen for themselves, is considered objectionable. Films that speak of caste violence, therefore, seldom openly name which communities are being represented. Viewers have to make the connections with the symbols and practices shown on screen. It is in this context that Paava Kadhaigal has been made.

As with most anthology films, the quality is uneven. The first, titled Thangam, is directed by Sudha Kongara and is about a trans woman from a Muslim family who undertakes a dangerous task that earns her the family's wrath. Members from the trans community have repeatedly said that trans characters on screen must be played by trans actors and not cis people using it as an opportunity to showcase their acting talent. However, most films with trans characters continue to cast cis actors in these roles. While this criticism is valid and cannot be reiterated enough, it must be said that Kalidas Jayaram in the role of Sattar plays the character with empathy and a kind of vulnerability that makes us root for her.

The film is set in the '80s and the milieu has been painstakingly recreated. Sattar is in love with the dashing shopkeeper (Shanthanu Bhagyaraj) in her village and though the latter treats her as a friend, he does not reciprocate her feelings. He is, on the other hand, interested in Sattar's sister (Bhavani). The story takes an ominous turn when Sattar decides to sacrifice herself for the happiness of the man she loves. While the film places Sattar at the centre of the narrative and makes the viewer empathise with the character's predicament, the violence meted out to her is discomfiting. Not that it doesn't happen in real life but art offers an opportunity for marginalised groups to assert their agency and when it is denied there too, the sense of powerlessness is magnified even more.

Sattar is treated as less-than human by everyone around her, including her family. Vinodhini Vaidyanathan as the desperate mother who washes her hands off her 'son' to save the family's honour turns in a devastating performance. The couple's response at the end to Sattar's fate is when she gets the bare minimum — recognition that she is human, too. However, I found myself wondering if the film's politics would have been better off had Sattar been made the hero not for her sacrifice but for her assertion of identity. I also wish Sudha had pushed the envelope more and allowed Shanthanu's character to examine his feelings for Sattar — with Sattar being overt in her feelings for him, it is strange for the latter to be completely oblivious to it. In fact, he gifts her a tube of lipstick that she desires and it felt like the narrative could have explored the possibilities there.

The second film titled Vaanmagal, directed by Gautham Menon, has the filmmaker playing a father to two girls and a boy, with Simran playing his wife. Of the four films, this was the most triggering to watch and it has to do more with how it has been made rather than the subject. Depicting sexual assault on screen calls for a high degree of sensitivity and especially so if it is a minor victim. But while Gautham's intention to turn the notion of honour on its head is laudable, he is clumsy in executing it. For example, when two men are discussing how it would be to rape Simran's character, one of them says, "If I do so, then I will become all thotta Bhoopathy". It's a reference to Simran's famous dance number from an old film but the joke in such a context is in extremely poor taste.

The scenes involving the child, too, needed a far more sensitive gaze than the usual 'rapey' depictions. It's apparent that Gautham is way out of his comfort zone of 'sophisticated' romances here (actually, it would have been interesting to see him do a film about honour in upper class, upper caste families), with the writing becoming clunkier as the film progresses. Lines like "My small girl has become a big woman because of this" are anchored to patriarchal notions about rape, where the victim 'changes' and therefore becomes an outcast. And how ridiculous that sexual assault is portrayed as a 'transformative' process to womanhood! It can be argued that these are the thoughts of the flawed characters and not the director, but nowhere does the narrative challenge these outdated ideas.

Also read: 'Putham Pudhu Kaalai': A light anthology film that's fun to watch

The solution to the crime is also problematic and a form of wish fulfilment that has become all too common on screen. Simran as the mother, however, is fantastic. Her denial, her dilemma, her pained howls cut close to the bone and it is her performance which really makes the film watchable.

The third film, Love Panna Uttranam, is directed by Vignesh Shivn and is interesting in parts. While the three other films are dark from the word go, Vignesh attempts some comedy in his segment. Anjali plays identical twins — one who is modern and another who is traditional. Padam Kumar plays the father of the twins, a ruthless man who has a reputation for uniting intercaste couples but is actually a violent, casteist person himself.

Some of the black comedy, like the domestic worker waiting for her cue to utter a dramatic line, is genuinely funny, as is the angle with Kalki Koechlin — a white woman who knows Tamil but the locals don't know that (the henchman is very good). But the film loses its way as it progresses and makes a mockery of a serious subject; it reduces a complex issue to a gimmicky line like 'love panna uttranam', even providing a joyous ending to a character who has committed a violent, casteist crime. Anjali, who has never hesitated to push boundaries with her roles, does so in this film too, and it's a pity we don't see her in more films.

Vetrimaaran's Oor Iravu is, in my view, the best of the four films. Sai Pallavi plays a pregnant woman who is invited by her estranged family for a baby shower in their hometown. Prakash Raj plays her father, and the film is a tense exploration of past and present events that leads to a conclusion that is predictable yet riveting. The crowded house, so warm and welcoming at the beginning, becomes the venue for unspeakable horror. Like Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal, this film too has a father who is torn between his affiliations to a casteist society and his love for his daughter. And just how deep those affiliations run unfolds in bits and pieces. He cannot accept a glass of water from his Dalit son-in-law, he has pulled out his younger children from college because he doesn't want them following in their sibling's footsteps.

Sai Pallavi is terrific as the young, independent woman who chooses to follow her heart and remains unapologetic about her life. Even when she is caught in difficult circumstances, she remains defiant and never once begs for forgiveness. Prakash Raj is plain scary because his character is so very real and not written like a monster we can safely distance ourselves from.

Overall, Paava Kadhaigal presents a gloomy look at a violent casteist society that is seldom represented on screen. It is also successful in showing how caste and gender are interlinked, with honour firmly tied up with women's bodies. However, I do wish that the film had also offered possibilities rather than add to the conditioning that it is impossible to break the status quo and that people who attempt to do so will meet a cruel fate. To be fair, Gautham Menon's Vaanmagal is in that direction but it suffers due to its problematic understanding and representation of gender-based violence. This is not a fool's desire for happy endings in cinema; politically conscious art must go beyond merely representing oppressive realities and imagine the what-ifs and why-nots that for viewers may seem impossible.

Watch: Trailer of 'Paava Kadhaigal'

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