Vetrimaaran’s “Oor Iravu” with Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj is the best of the four films.
After Putham Pudhu Kaalai on Amazon Prime Video, the Tamil industry has devised another anthology film for the OTT (Over-the-Top) space – Paava Kadhaigal which just came out on Netflix. The theme this time around is distinctly different from the light and foamy atmosphere of the previous film, although two of the directors in Paava Kadhaigal had worked Putham Pudhu Kaalai mashed potato.
The four films, each directed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivn and Vetrimaaran, revolve around chaste and patriarchal notions of “honor”. While caste violence has often been depicted in Tamil cinema as one community oppressing another, there have not been too many instances where caste violence within the family is exposed. Movies like Kaadhal is Gouravam have explored the subject in the past, and recently, directors such as Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran have spoken openly about breaking the silence about caste on screen. Indeed, the rise of anti-caste voices within the Tamil film industry has led to films such as Draupathi who blatantly glorify caste pride and even defend caste killings.
Additionally, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) feeds troubling ideas about portraying castes on screen. While celebrating caste pride is not seen as a caste phenomenon, the use of the word “Dalit”, a political and social identity that oppressed people have chosen for themselves, is also considered questionable. Films about caste violence, therefore, rarely openly name which communities are represented. Viewers must make connections with the symbols and practices shown on the screen. It is in this context that Paava Kadhaigal it has been done.
As with most anthology films, the quality is uneven. The first, entitled Thangam, is headed 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. Trans community members have repeatedly stated that trans characters on screen are to be played by trans actors and not cis people who use 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 cheer for her.
The film is set in the 1980s and the setting has been meticulously recreated. Sattar is in love with the charming shopkeeper (Shanthanu Bhagyaraj) in his village and although the latter treats her as a friend, he does not reciprocate his feelings. On the other hand, he is interested in Sattar’s sister (Bhavani). The story takes a menacing turn when Sattar decides to sacrifice himself for the happiness of the man he loves. While the film puts Sattar at the center of the narrative and empathizes the viewer with the character’s plight, the violence inflicted on her is staggering. Not that it doesn’t happen in real life, but art offers an opportunity for marginalized groups to assert their action and when it is denied there too, the sense of powerlessness is amplified even more.
Sattar is treated as less than human by everyone around her, including her family. Vinodhini Vaidyanathan as the desperate mother washing her hands of her “son” to save the family honor turns into a devastating performance. The couple’s response to Sattar’s fate in the end is when she gets the bare minimum: the recognition that she too is human. However, I found myself wondering if the film’s politics would have been better if Sattar had been made the hero not for his sacrifice but for his assertion of identity. I also wish Sudha had pushed the envelope harder and allowed Shanthanu’s character to examine her feelings for Sattar – with Sattar evident in her feelings for him, it’s strange that the latter is completely oblivious to it. In fact, he gives her a tube of lipstick she craves and it looked like the narrative could explore the possibilities there.
The second film entitled Vaanmagal, directed by Gautham Menon, the director plays the father of two girls and a boy, with Simran playing his wife. Of the four films, this was the most inspiring to watch and has to do with the most As it was done rather than the subject. Depicting sexual assault on screen requires a high degree of sensitivity, especially if it is a minor victim. But while Gautham’s intention to overturn the notion of honor is laudable, he is clumsy in executing it. For example, when two men are arguing about what it would be like to rape the Simran character, one of them says, “If I do that, I’ll become all bhoopathy.” It’s a reference to the famous Simran dance number from an old movie, but the joke in that context is in bad taste.
Even the scenes involving the child needed a much more sensitive gaze than the usual “kidnapped” representations. It is evident that Gautham is out of his comfort zone of “ sophisticated ” novels here (actually, it would have been interesting to see him make a film about honor in upper-class and upper-caste families), with the writing becoming more clumsy as the film progresses. Lines like “My little girl became a great woman because of this” are anchored in patriarchal notions of rape, in which the victim “changes” and thus becomes an outcast. And how ridiculous it is that sexual violence is portrayed as a process of “transformation” of femininity! It can be argued that these are the thoughts of the imperfect characters and not the director, but nowhere does the narrative challenge these outdated ideas.
Read also: “Putham Pudhu Kaalai”: a light anthology film that is fun to watch
The solution to crime is also problematic and a form of wish fulfillment that has become all too common on screen. Simran as a mother, however, is fantastic. His denial, his dilemma, his painful howls cut close to the bone and it’s his performance that truly makes the film watchable.
The third film, I love Panna Uttranam, is directed by Vignesh Shivn and is interesting in parts. While the other three films are obscure from the start, Vignesh attempts a comedy in his segment. Anjali plays two identical twins, one modern and another traditional. Padam Kumar plays the father of the twins, a ruthless man who has a reputation for uniting intertwined couples, but is actually a violent and chaste person himself.
Some of the black comedies, like the maid waiting for her cue to deliver a dramatic line, are really funny, as is the angle with Kalki Koechlin, a white woman who knows Tamil but the locals don’t know. henchman is very good). But the film gets lost as it progresses and makes fun of a serious topic; it reduces a complex issue to a deceptive line like “love panna uttranam”, while also providing a joyful ending to a character who has committed a violent and chaste crime. Anjali, who has never hesitated to push boundaries with her roles, does so in this film as well, and it’s a shame we don’t see her in other films.
Vetrimaaran’s Oor Iravu is, in my opinion, the best of the four films. Sai Pallavi plays a pregnant woman who is invited by her separated family for a baby shower in their hometown. Prakash Raj plays his father, and the film is a tense exploration of past and present events leading to a predictable but fascinating conclusion. The crowded house, so warm and welcoming at first, becomes the place of unspeakable horror. Like that of Mari Selvaraj Pariyerum Perumal, this film also has a father torn between his affiliations to a caste society and his love for his daughter. And how deep those affiliations are unravels at times. He can’t accept a glass of water from his son-in-law Dalit, he got his youngest children out of college because he doesn’t want them to follow in their brothers’ footsteps.
Sai Pallavi is formidable as the independent young woman who chooses to follow her heart and doesn’t apologize for her life. Even when he finds himself in difficult circumstances, he remains rebellious and never asks for forgiveness. Prakash Raj is simply scary because his character is very real and not written as a monster we can safely distance ourselves from.
Overall, Paava Kadhaigal presents a somber look at a violent caste society that is rarely represented on screen. It also manages to show how caste and gender are intertwined, with honor firmly tied to women’s bodies. However, I wish the film also offered possibilities rather than adding 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 honest, that of Gautham Menon Vaanmagal goes in that direction, but suffers from its problematic understanding and representation of gender-based violence. This is not the foolish desire for a happy ending in cinema; politically conscious art must go beyond the mere representation of oppressive realities and imagine what-if and why-not that may seem impossible to viewers.
Watch: “Paava Kadhaigal” Trailer
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series / film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organization may have with the producers or any other member of the cast or crew.