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Netflix's Paava Kadhaigal Review: Vetrimaaran leaves you a teary mess in this fairly engaging anthol- Cinema express

Netflix's Paava Kadhaigal Review: Vetrimaaran leaves you a teary mess in this fairly engaging anthology  

Four mainstream filmmakers unite to tackle a sinful side to humanity, in this dark anthology that works more than it doesn't

Published: 18th December 2020
Netflix's Paava Kadhaigal Review

There’s an inexplicable unease caused by the melancholic lullaby, Kanne Kanmaniye, Sivatmikha's song that precedes each of the four films in Netflix’s anthology, Paava Kadhaigal. It’s the discomfiting hint that the same parents who so cherish and adore their daughters, calling them Kanne and Kanmaniye, somehow develop the cognitive dissonance necessary to be able to unleash unspeakable monstrosities on them in the name of honour. The slashes of red in the animation video that charts the growth of a daughter, as she transforms from dependent toddler to a freethinking adult in love and later, marriage, is another ominous sign of what’s to come in the four films. I found Paava Kadhaigal’s foray into the horror of our kind—something as specific as honour killings—to be such a welcome departure from the anthologies themed on generic topics that have come our way so far. This idea serves to offer filmmakers like Gautham Menon and Vignesh Shivan a chance to enter new worlds—in whose darkness lie realistic forces like chastity and caste and social reputation—and the results range from reasonably engaging to gut-wrenching.

Directors: Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Menon, Vetrimaaran
Cast: Shanthnu Bhagyaraj, Kalidas Jayaram, Anjali, Simran, Gautham Menon, Sai Pallavi, Prakash Raj

With each of the four shorts being as long as 30 minutes, I would be remiss not to approach these segments separately, but before I do that, let me just take stock of some common threads running across many of these stories, if not all. For one, they are all about conflicted parents frightened of social persecution, parents who are not above considering murder. All of these films speak of the pressure of a big, bad system and how it influences individuals to do that which they would otherwise shudder to even consider. A character in Sudha Kongara’s Thangam says: “Kola pannavana vida kola panna vittavan periya kolakaaran.” More than one film touches upon the nourishing role a parent plays, and how children tend to seek those qualities in their romantic partners (how ironic then that both parties should find it so difficult to get along). Be it Anjali’s character in Vignesh Shivan’s Love Panna Vitranum or Sai Pallavi’s character in Vetrimaaran’s Orr Iravu, the daughters almost implore their father to note how well they are taken care of. It’s agonising to observe these innocent women fail to even suspect that the hand that fed and bathed and raised them could potentially consider slaughter.

Many of these films show how the city is a comparatively safer place for those desperate to escape the asphyxiating systems prevalent in the smaller towns and villages. Quite a few of the films also sneak in short songs that play out to montages, with Vignesh Shivan’s film featuring a rap performance. Also, the topic of honour killing gets interpreted in more than one way in this anthology. It’s also worth noting that many of these films don’t exactly get into details of the caste topic: Sudha’s film has a twist on the idea of an oppressed woman, Vignesh Shivan’s film speaks in broad generalisations, Gautham Menon’s film explores a very different take on the central idea of honour, and Vetrimaaran’s film—which arguably shows the most interest in the caste angle—remains largely focussed on uncovering the personality of the perpetrator.

1. Sudha Kongara’s Thangam

It’s quite fascinating how with the single trick of conjuring up a transwoman in this film, what would otherwise play like a typical rural love story that runs into parental opposition, gets infused with so many new layers. Yes, the film is about an honour killing; a Hindu man falls in love with a Muslim woman and incurs the wrath of everyone around; there’s even a love triangle here, and these are all aspects we have seen many times over in our cinema, but here, almost every angle feels fresh simply because of the central character: an oppressed, humiliated trans woman, Saththaaru (a wonderful Kalidas Jayaram), whose identity as a woman is consistently, systematically denied by the society she lives in. It’s been many days since I originally caught the screening of Paava Kadhaigal, but some of the smaller moments in this film, like Saththaaru’s uninhibited smile when in the presence of those she trusts, remain vivid in my head. It’s much credit to Kalidas’ performance who really inhabits this character, with all her vulnerabilities and indomitable cheer.

This film speaks of the dangers lurking at every corner for a trans woman, how it’s often worse than even for cisgender women. Saththaaru, once commenting about having to venture out at night, looks at her sister and says, “Ava kooda raathiri thaniya poidalaam, ennaala poga mudiyadhu.” The best parts of this film were those that let this character breathe and live and love.

Given it’s a 30-minute film though, Sudha’s short is in a bit of a hurry to get places, to establish and wrap up the very many developments. Shanthnu’s Thangam shrugs off a potential proposal leading to heartbreak, falls in love, gets married, elopes, spends a year, has a child… all in this runtime. This is perhaps why the transition from a general cheery mood to one of lament feels rather sudden, even if Sudha cushions it with a twist. As the film hurtled towards its dark, fairly cursory twist end, I wished I had learned more about Saththaaru, more than the quick shading the character gets, and perhaps that’s what stopped me from really turning inconsolable as that almost melodramatic flashback plays out towards the end. But by and large, it’s a film that sets up the anthology quite well.

2. Vignesh Shivn’s Love Panna Vitturanum

I’m quite conflicted by this film, a dark comedy, because the portions that work well are delightful, but the film is also unfortunately burdened by some clumsy transitions from one mood to another, and there’s a bit of problematic messaging as well (I quite agreed with the one in the title though). Given the heft and solemnity of the topic at hand—honour killing—it’s an interesting choice by director Vignesh Shivn to narrow down the genre to dark comedy. The name of Penelope (Kalki Koechlin) undergoes wordplay with the Tamil word for faeces; Penelope herself learns of a few cusswords during the course of this film; someone confuses the word lesbian with ESPN and there’s quite a bit of situational comedy too—and one involving a househelp comes at a point that makes you wonder whether you are supposed to be gasping in horror or feeling amusement. This confusion is one of the problems with Love Panna Vitturanum, which turns from encouraging you to be aghast, to finding the developments amusing. One joke really hit home though for me: the irony of those in opposition to intercaste love getting flummoxed when asked about a lesbian relationship. In one scene, the twisted villainous group in the village gawks as two women kiss and if each member there had had thought bubbles, the text would have likely read, “What rules govern this type of relationship? How are we to react to this?”

There are two terrific performances in this film: Padam Kumar, who plays a casteist politician and the father to identical twins, Aadhilakshmi and Jyothilakshmi (both played by Anjali); and dancer Jaffer who plays a little person and the politician’s cunning underling. A quote from Game of Thrones came to mind in thinking about the little person in this film: A very small person can cast a very large shadow. In GRR Martin’s stories, the little person who goes by the name of Tyrion Lannister is one of the heroes, but here, the little person is established to be a remorseless killer who earns every expletive that comes his way. While the visual impact of seeing such a unique character with a baritone voice no less, does add to the menace of the performance, I’m not sure it’s doing anything useful to such people who already face quite a bit of bias and unkindness, on account of their diminutive stature. Having said that, that opening shot to establish his character is beautifully choreographed as you learn about the person he is, what he stands for, what he’s just done, and finally his physical stature as he steps out of the vehicle.

Meanwhile, Padam Kumar, playing Veerasimman, a father who priotises caste pride and social honour over love for his daughters, draws a lot from the depths of his seemingly sleep-starved eyes to communicate his many unsaid emotions and thoughts. Watch him in that scene, sinking back into his chair, contemplating the ramifications of his decision after sending Aadhilakshmi to her bath. Watch him take his time spitting out his dialogues in this film, without ever being in a hurry.

This dark comedy never truly allows you to soak in the impact of two horrific murders that occur in its timeline. Instead, it takes upon itself the problematic idea of almost attempting to empathise with Veerasimman. That it’s done through a sad song that is all about his supposed pain—and the happy end he seems to get in this film—really gets you wondering how or why he has been allowed to go scot free, despite doing something unspeakable. But then, it is a film in which a girl can be found laughing in a car, barely a brief period after learning about the demise of a close one. When the film—and its very strange epilogue text—finishes playing out, you are ultimately left with the aftertaste of having watched a strange film that perhaps could not comfortably handle the darkness of its material.

3. Gautham Menon’s Vaanmagal

This film, this topic, must be unchartered territory for Gautham Menon, even if you can very much spot his directorial presence with the rather strong use of music and recurring voice-overs, including one that wraps up the film. The director also acts as one of the traumatised parents (the wife is played by Simran), and I quite bought him playing an almost stifled male leader figure of this family, whose decisions are more influenced by his wife than he generally lets out (like in that scene where he says that the car seat covers aren’t removed following her request).

It’s a film that, like Sudha’s segment, conceives for itself a twist on the idea of an honour killing. What’s honour, and what are the many ways by which a middle-class family can potentially feel mortified? The film explores one such angle—which features an abduction that seems to come from nowhere and resultant sexual violence—and the social stigma surrounding victims and more relevantly for this film, their families. And in doing that, you could call this film the odd one out in this anthology, choosing as it does to focus not on the specifics of love gone awry (as the others do).

I enjoyed Simran’s performance as the pained, almost disgusted, rather confused conservative woman, desperately trying to bring normalcy back to the household after an incident. She’s the type to tell her daughter who’s attained puberty that her body “is a temple” and that “men will be after it” and that she must learn to “behave like a woman”. In this film with some grisly developments, including rape, filicide, and mutilation, the scene that caused me the most discomfort is one that shows a mother attempting to literally scrub the stain of a crime on her daughter’s body. The film also touches upon the reluctance of your average middle-class family to approach the police for help and speaks of how a crime inflicted on one family member can decisively overthrow the lives of other family members. That incisive line from the trailer about how women bear the burden of family honour and prestige—one that pretty much is a thread across all films in this anthology—is from this film.

4. Vetrimaaran’s Orr Iravu

My favourite of all the films, Vetrimaaran’s Orr Iravu is an unflinching microscopic observation of honour killing and how a system enables it. It’s perhaps for this film that that affecting animation sequence fully works, with the film almost continuing from where that sequence ends. The film begins with a fantastically choreographed opening sequence at the native home of Sumathi (a fantastic Sai Pallavi), as she attempts to reconcile with aggrieved family members many of whom still hold some grouse over her eloping. The house’s ultra-realistic design, stained wall and all, and inmates going about their cooking and cleaning chores, makes it quite clear at the beginning that this is almost a docu-style capturing of the events set to unfold in it. The beliefs of this house’s inhabitants are made clear right then too, as Sumathi refers to her husband by name and her mother quips, “Purushan paera solradha un oorla vechika.” By ‘un ooru’, she’s, of course, referring to the city from where Sumathi has arrived—a city that this film suggests is far safer than Sumathi’s native village and its in-your-face casteism.

Though caste oppression is at the heart of this film—Sumathi’s father (Prakash Raj), for instance, can’t even get himself to drink water at his son-in-law’s place—this is a film that trains its focus squarely not on the oppressed (Sumathi or her backward caste husband, Hari) but the oppressor, her father. However, where the Vignesh Shivan film gets a bit carried away with the portrait of the casteist man, save for a brief moment in which Prakash Raj’s character narrates to nobody in particular the social stigma his family has had to face after the eloping of his daughter, Vetrimaaran’s film never loses track of the victim for too long. Immediately after this scene, for instance, you are made privy to some traumatic visuals that leave you in no doubt that this is a film that’s simply trying to, almost like a thesis, bear witness and record the transformation of a nourishing, caring father into a frightening aggressor. The film is also interested in exposing the role of society in such evil getting enforced and as suggested at the end, even lawfully excused. Save for some classical violins that intervene when the situation gets particularly dire, this is a pretty silent film, with the sound design mostly tasked with capturing the reality of the setting, like the chirping of crickets at night—which has the effect of making the events feel even more real and consequently, sinister.

I loved both Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj in this film, the former especially in how she crawls and pleads and endures primal agony. As for Prakash Raj playing Sumathi’s conflicted father, this film is mainly about the profiling of his character, about how systemic pressure causes him to lose grasp of what’s right and wrong. While putting him under the microscope, this film also takes note of the relegated roles afforded to women in such societies and the apparent disrespect. Just take a look at how Sumathi’s father treats the women of his house, especially his wife who he often calls like one would do cattle: ‘Ai!’

In this profoundly affecting film, if I had a complaint at all, it would be that in its eagerness not to be seen relegating Hari to the background, it ends up resorting to awkward epilogue text to offer some explanations. By then, the film is long over, its objective of a detailed portrait of Sumathi’s father quite complete, leaving me, a teary mess.

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