The anthology, whose violence is meticulously designed to leave the audience with a heavy-heart, offers a glimpse into a woman’s world
(The review contains mild spoilers)
When you think of injustice or paava kadhaigal — whether it comes in the form of one’s sexuality, caste-based violence or honour killing — you cannot help but wonder how much of it is endured by women, who are invariably at the receiving end. The animated title sequence of the anthology, which employs colour red as a symbol to display the various stages of a woman’s life, further drives home the point that women are the worst among the oppressed, irrespective of which caste or creed they belong to.
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Sudha Kongara’s Thangam is the most interesting film of Paava Kadhaigal. It is interesting in what it could have become. In Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime, two childhood friends, who are seemingly straight, share a kiss that results in an uncomfortable intimacy between the two. The film was a tender portrait in what it explored: male friendship and sexual orientation, among others.
Sudha’s portion could have been that film. The only thing is, it is not. Yet, it is still an interesting film. Thangam shares a similar plot involving two childhood friends, one of whom is a transgender (Kalidas Jayaram gives a heartwarming performance as Sathaar/Thangam, devoid of the stereotypes that come with playing a trans character) and is attracted to his friend Saravanan (Shanthanu Bhagyaraj, who has always been good at what he does), who, in turn, is attracted to Sathaar’s sister, Sahira (Bhavani Sre).
Never has there been a film — at least in Tamil — that batted for the natural, physical and sexual feelings of a trans person. And never have we seen the heartbreak of a trans character in an unrequited love story — it’s almost as if the subgenre is reserved only for males. The film is set in the same era T Rajender became the poster boy of unrequited love with his Oru Thalai Raagam, a film which gave into a distasteful portrayal of transgender people in ‘Kokkarakozhi Koovura Velai’ song. Sathaar too is subjected to name-calling and homophobic jokes; they refer to him as “Saravanan purushan”. The duality of Thangam really works. You think Saravanan is Sathaar’s “thangam” until you discover who the actual thangam is.
But the unrequited love angle seems to be the only merit of the short.
What we see in Thangam, which deals with an interfaith marriage, is the honour of a family that puts gender identity above everything else. In one of the cruel scenes, Sathaar’s mother (Vinodhini Vaidhyanathan) begs that he rather die instead of putting them to shame. It is horrifying to think of the many real-life Sathaars who are “killed” without their families actually killing them.
- Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Shanthanu Bhagyaraj, Bhavani Sree, Anjali, Kalki Koechlin, Gautham Menon, Simran, Prakash Raj and Sai Pallavi
- Director: Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Menon and Vetri Maaran
- Duration: 35 minutes each
Vignesh Shivan is angry. He is angry at a society that doesn’t accept inter-caste marriages. He is angry at a society, for which LGBTQI + community is still an alien concept. He thinks he can vent out his anger through his characters in Love Panna Uttranum and through their liberal usage of expletives. But what Vignesh doesn’t understand is this: swear words don’t actually translate to emotions. His episode is about caste-based killings and has a fascinating subplot involving something like a secret society, headed by a vertically-challenged character (I didn’t get the actor’s name, but let’s just say he is the best that could have happened to this film). Anjali plays the twin daughter (Aadhilakshmi and Jothilakshmi) to a village head (played by an actor who is brilliant), a casteist who gives fake political speeches, positioning himself as anti-caste. For every inter-caste marriage that he approves of, you have the secret society working for him in the underground, trying to “even” out his stance.
Love Panna Uttranum is a film that brings lightness to Paava Kadhaigal and that is the biggest problem. It doesn’t want you to take itself seriously, partly due to its tonality — which, if anything, plays out like a black comedy of sorts — and its tone-deafening politics. One of the sisters is gay, or at least we hope she is, and the other wants her father’s approval for marrying someone outside of their caste.
Aadhilakshmi is in love with Penelope (Kalki Koechlin), a foreigner. Of course, you need a foreigner to show a lesbian couple. How else would you convince Tamil people? But her reason for coming out is both silly and laughable. She says she got closer to girls — in fear of her father and his violent measures to balance his personal politics — because of the aversion she developed on men from a young age. But that’s not how that works, right? It is like when a character misreads lesbian as ESPN — which, at the risk of sounding homophobic, is a scream. Sure, there may be people like Aadhilakshmi in real life but the reasoning here needed more meat. The short reduces the LGBTQI+ issue into a proponent, which could be the larger criticism you could hold against the anthology. For, it subverts what it tries to establish in the first place when it gets a muted ending.
As poetic as it may sound, Gautham Menon’s Vaanmagal is anything but. The short is an unflinching look at the sexual assault of a minor, and has the sort of a chilling effect that would leave an eternal scar on a Gautham Menon protagonist, who would have to decide on the path he chooses to take — or should we say “Oru melisana kodu”? But the short isn’t about how a quintessential Gautham Menon protagonist would react, although we do get a knee jerk reaction — which reinforces vigilante justice for a heinous crime, reflecting the collective opinion of the public when such incidents happen — from one of the characters. Vaanmagal is the loss of innocence more than anything — of a bird that wishes to stretch its wings and take off, in a sky filled with vultures.
That little bird is Ponnuthayi (I don’t remember the name of the child artiste, but she is really good), who gets a cheerful song of her own. She grows up in a normal family, with normal parents who say normal things. Her father Sathya (Gautham Menon) tells her to grow wings and her mother, Mathi (Simran who gives a terrific reaction when she figures out what exactly happened to Ponnuthayi), tells her to stay vigilant. She is at a tender age, positively unaware of the devilish grins and lecherous looks she would attract from men once she attains a certain age, like her elder sister who has just hit puberty.
Like in any household, the elder sister is advised to “walk, talk, sleep and behave” like a woman and be extra cautious of the darkness that lurks around the corner. Ponnuthayi is naturally charmed by the attention and newfound respect that her elder sister gets. In an endearing scene, the little girl tells her mother she wants to be a “woman” like akka, not knowing what that means and not knowing the painful extent she would have to go through to understand what that means.
Vaanmagal gets the broader definition of “honour” right. On one hand, we see the honour — or should we say futility? — of the family throwing a puberty ceremony, announcing to the world the woman the girl has become. And, on the other hand, we see the “honour” and “purity” that a woman is conditioned to carry within.
The short, thankfully, is a departure for Gautham Menon — I loved the idea of connecting two parallel stories through a newspaper headline. Although the only departure seems like the setting and not the sensibilities — Sathya puts in a few extra notes in his son’s pocket; it doesn’t tell anything about them. None of the actors, except Aadhithya Bhaskar, is true to the world they are in, and speaks with a heavily accented Chennai Tamizh.
Gautham’s limitation as an actor clearly shows, especially in the scene where he finds out about Ponnuthayi. His world has just collapsed in front of his eyes and Gautham is surprisingly stoic — unless, of course, he is Georgekutty (Drishyam). The scene screams for a Kamal Haasan, for a Prakash Raj.
If a fantastic actor like Prakash Raj is what Vaanmagal lacked, then Vetri Maaran’s strand has the opposite effect, showing us the dangers of casting a fantastic actor like Prakash Raj, in a short that gets everything right about an inter-caste marriage. Vetri’s choice of the actor puts him in a dangerous position, as a filmmaker, for painting a sympathetic picture of a character, who would commit himself to subjecting the worst form of torture on his daughter — take a note of the Memories of Murder kind of a closing shot, and you’ll realise what I mean.
In Vada Chennai, Vetri examined how the murder of one character (Rajan) affected (or altered?) the lives of 10 or 12 central characters. Likewise, in Oor Iravu, Vetri not only seems to be interested in speaking of the sufferings of a couple in an inter-caste marriage, but also in the consequences their immediate family members face, which, in turn, paints a larger picture of our society.
So, when Sumathi (Sai Pallavi who sheds sweat, tears and blood) returns to her village for the supposed baby shower, she gets hostile treatment from everyone except her father Janakiraman (Prakash Raj, who, well, is fantastic) and her mother. Her brother, Sree, gives a cold reply when she asks him to bring her phone. Sai Pallavi is touching when she says, “Sree, nee romba maarita da.” I cried. We later know the ignominy he faced in college when his sister eloped.
There are a few things Vetri wanted to explore but has been buried under the carpet in the form of dialogues, perhaps, due to the shorter format. For many living in the interiors of Tamil Nadu where caste-based practises and violence are much more prominent, Chennai, the city, is a get out. It’s a symbol of freedom and liberation from the shadows of caste. Not that the city itself is free of caste, but the air we breath is comparatively better. This, perhaps, is why we get a scene where Sumathi’s sister tells her she wished she had lived in a city like her “free” of all this. That is also why we see a change of heart in Janakiraman (“We are all old-fashioned, you don’t need us.”), when he finds Sumathi living an “independent” life.
Like most of Vetri’s films, Oor Iravu, too, has two timelines: one that has quite a few long sequences that happen in the present, and one in the past. And let us admit; no other filmmaker has fully understood the potential of flashbacks, like Vetri. But here, it serves very little purpose, though you could argue that we see two sides of the father. He comes across as more caring in the flashback, but we come to know of his true colours and what he truly represents in the present. The short, unlike Vetri’s previous works, has lots of silences. It is these silences that send shudders and speak louder than words.
It is tough to buy into what Prakash Raj does in the end, because of Prakash Raj. Yes, there is no denial that these crimes have happened and are happening. Yes, the ending is brutal and gut-wrenching. Yes, the ending seems to have been written to jolt the viewers, to hold a mirror to the actual perpetrators, who may have escaped justice for now. But does that mean it’s affecting? Unfortunately not. Vetri Maaran thanks filmmaker Ameer in the credits. Talk about a bloody climax with an actual emotional pay-off and there is Ameer’s Paruthiveeran.
Paava Kadhaigal is currently streaming on Netflix