Ms Representation: The honour that kills
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Netflix's Paava Kadhaigal
Paava Kadhaigal (stories of sin in English) is quite the appropriate name for the new Netflix anthology, helmed by Sudha Kongara (Thangam), Vignesh Shivan (Love Panna Vitranum), Gautham Menon (Vaanmagal), and Vetri Maaran (Orr Iravu). In all of them, sin is at the centre, with the characters placing honour above love, family, and humanity. Another similarity here is that the victims are all women or those who identify as women. Honour and honour killings are usually associated with casteism, but I found Paava Kadhaigal to interpret honour in a different, more inclusive manner. It touches upon the complicated relationship women have with ‘honour’, and this goes beyond caste. The patriarchal society has saddled women with the responsibility of ‘honour’ for centuries, censoring their lives and choices. Ironically, Paavam is also an expression of sympathy in Tamil. There’s another layer then to this title, about stories that reflect the unfair universe that our women are bundled into.
The anthology doesn’t delve deep into caste, yes, but what it does do is bring out the underlying frustration that comes with being a woman. Being a woman can be truly and thoroughly exhausting. The constant fear of being violated, physically and emotionally, drains the energy out of us. It is everywhere: in inboxes, workplaces, educational institutions, public places... In three of the four stories of Paava Kadhaigal, the woman’s death is caused by a family member. In Love Panna Vitranum and Orr Iravu, the involvement of family (the father) is direct. It is cold-blooded murder. In Thangam, the action of Sathar’s family indirectly results in her death. The parental emotion, however, is the same: ‘I would rather you die than accept you.’ Though women aren't the only victims of patriarchy, they definitely suffer more. Has any man suffered an emotional breakdown for just being... a man? I know women do; I know I have.
This is why Paava Kadhaigal, especially Sudha’s and Vetri Maaran’s portions, were gut-wrenching. When Sumathi (Sai Pallavi) slumps beside the window and says, ‘Ponna kola pannitu, epdi pa thoonguva nee? Romba thappu pa!’, a thousand daggers pierce your heart. When Sumathi’s sister says her education was discontinued after the former eloped, your anger is uncontrollable. You can feel the frustration course through you. Not all stories are meant to create hope; some just serve to remind us of our sick reality. Such are the stories of sin.
There are issues, yes. Paava Kadhaigal has been the centre of debate following its release. You could argue that Love Panna Uttranum is queer bait. Conceiving it as a dark comedy, amid grittier tales, is cool, but that doesn’t absolve one from decent representation. Not only does the film use the queer angle as a gimmick, but it also reflects a lack of effort to understand and show the community in a respectable light. Also, does Vignesh Shivan realise that some of the slurs used in the funny exchange are sexist? Most of the popular cuss words target women, rob women of agency, because... patriarchy…
And then there’s Vaanmagal, an extremely relevant story in today’s times. How does a family deal with the rape of a girl child? The victim doesn’t comprehend what has happened to her, but the family knows. It is a premise that demands nuance and sensitivity, but Vaanmagal takes the unsavory ‘commercial’ route. Not even a great performance from Simran saves this short from its plastic dialogues, its synthetic world. It is shocking that the survivor is spoken about like she were an adult, after her rape. Rape is NOT a rite of passage into womanhood. Girls, in general, are forced to grow up earlier due to the unnecessary pressure on their bodies and lives. The least one can do about it, is be sensitive. Vaanmagal also takes another preposterously cinematic route, with a male character castrating a rapist. What next? If OTT platforms are truly the bastion of such creative freedom, shouldn’t filmmakers at least try and be less placatory with their stories?
And then, there are the other debates I don’t have all the answers for: like cis actors playing trans roles (I would love to see more trans actors) or the accusations of ‘trauma porn’. But with each conversation, or ‘hot take’, I attempt to widen my perspective. For this alone, I am glad that an anthology like Paava Kadhaigal exists. These conversations are crucial. It is only through debate that we will discard outdated notions and wear inclusive colours of the future. But the conversations need to be healthy, for, when asking creators to be responsible and respectful, shouldn’t we do the same?