Paava Kadhaigal movie review: Netflix Tamil anthology deftly explores why the regular is right and the different is sinful
Paava Kadhaigal is a call to reject the family that rejects equality.
castKalidas Jayaram, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Simran, Kalki Koechlin, Sai Pallavi, Anjali, Prakash Raj
directorSudha Kongara, Vetrimaaran, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Vignesh Shivan
*Minor spoilers ahead*
What is sin? Who is the sinner? — these are two fundamental questions that Paava Kadhaigal, Netflix’s Tamil edition of Lust Stories, endeavours to answer. The title, which translates to stories of sin would have us believe that this is about deviants and the society they are in. In actuality though, the anthology is more about the violence of the norm, and who gains from perpetuating it.
In Sudha Kongara’s film Thangam, a thug asks, “Why does he keep strutting around like a girl?” about Sattar, a transwoman. Without batting an eyelid, Saravanan responds, “Does he ask why we horse around like men?”
It is the exploration of this idea — why does the regular feel right and the different become a sin — that makes Paava Kadhaigal interesting, even gut-wrenching at times.
While each filmmaker chooses a different sin across gender, sexuality, inter-faith desire etc, they are all brought together by the same antagonist. Each filmmaker does it in their own way, and some do it better than others.
Vignesh Shivan, for instance, approaches it with humour, albeit forced and inappropriate. In his film Love Panna Uttranum, twins Adhilakshmi and Jothilakshmi, both played with nonchalance by Anjali, fall in love outside their caste. Adhi with their driver, played with heart by Manikandan, who we wish we got more of; and Jothi with Penelope, played by Kalki Koechlin, who aces the Tamil-speaking French woman she plays.
It is filled with moments of cautious hope. Especially, the scene in the car, when Adhi tells her father about her relationship, is delicately packed with tension. Manikandan, even though he is hardly there, makes us feel for him.
But in an effort to end with a punch, or perhaps even with a happily-ever-after, the film treats its subject matter frivolously. It ‘forgives’ a father who murdered his daughter, allows him to ‘escape’ from the village, and offers him ‘asylum.' Thank god the man had twins: he can murder one and then redeem himself with the next within two years, Shivan appears to imply.
Vetrimaaran’s film has his usual problems too: I caught myself frantically reading subtitles because I could hardly comprehend what Sai Pallavi was saying. If we can look past the dialogue though, this film Oor Iravu is the most gut-wrenching of them all. Sumathi, Sai Pallavi making the character so real and affecting, leaves home and marries a man she loves. This causes social unrest in her maternal village, drawing multiple people to begrudge her, including her own siblings. One day, her father comes looking for her in the city to convince her that he wants to throw her a baby shower — “We’re only angry with our daughter, not the grandchild,” he explains.
“This is the happiest I’ve seen Sumathi in the two years we’ve been married,” Hari, Sumathi’s husband, tells her father. We do not really see her happy in the traditional sense. She is not grinning or jumping or even speaking enthusiastically. There is a quiet happiness about being accepted by family that Pallavi captures beautifully. It begs the question: why do children want their bigoted family to accept them? What is wrong with estrangement? We get many theories in response to this, each one more piercing than the next.
Kongara places her film in 1981, which lends a certain vintage beauty to the landscape it is set in, what with the ambassador cars, T Rajendar film posters, Ilaiyaraja music, and so on. It makes it especially stark when the entire village shuts its eyes to the violence and bloodshed among them.
Kalidas Jayaram, who plays Sattar, embodies innocent hopefulness, ingenious hustle, and hearty love. Sattar’s relationship with Saravanan, played by a fresh Shanthanu Bhagyaraj, is also complex and unexplained. It is almost as if none of that matters in a world where we are unable to stomach the simple fact that people can be different.
The most moving film for me was Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vaanmagal, partly because it is a different kind of ‘sin’ in the context of Paava Kadhaigal, partly because of how it treats every individual in the story.
In the din of a night, Ponnuthaayi, a 12-year-old with a dream to fly into the outer space, is raped. The film captures how her family navigates the trauma. Bharath, the brother cries for revenge. Vaidehi, the elder sister, is kept in the dark. Sathya, the father, played by Gautham Menon, avoids eye contact, and refuses to talk to her — “go sleep,” he says, almost dismissing her from the room. He feels guilty on behalf of mankind, and helpless as a father.
Madhi, the mother, embodies anger, shame, regret, and even momentary cruelty. There is a scene where Madhi abruptly forces Ponnuthaayi into the bathroom, pours cold water on her head, and tries to violently scrub away the scars on the child’s body. She wishes it would go away. When it does not, she sits down hopelessly, with her head in her hand, as Ponnuthaayi watches confused.
This beautifully written scene, enacted with great restraint by Simran, who we certainly need more of, lays bare the depths of human weakness. Madhi does not want the safety or recovery of her child. She wishes her not to have visible proof of the trauma. Madhi is the woman through whom patriarchy passes down.
It is almost unnerving how little the film focusses on the needs and wishes of the girl itself. It helps that she is only 12. “She’s forced to grow up because of this incident,” we hear the family repeatedly lament.
The reason this story is closest to me is that it tells the story of parents who are by no means perfect but have their heart in the right place. I did wish the parallel between the bleeding crotch of a man and a woman was not the resolution to the crime. I did wish the elder sister had more of a chance to comfort Pannuthaayi; sisterhood is healing after all. I also wished there was less commentary and theorising.
Yet, I found myself empathising with Sathya and Madhi, who start late and drive slowly, reach their destination without bloodshed. Would they do the same thing if Ponnuthaayi fell in love with a Dalit woman on her way to the outer space? We do not know. But I am willing to bet my money that they just might.
On the outside, Paava Kadhaigal might appear to explore concepts of honour, pride, social position etc. When we look closer, we realise that it is a rebuke of family as an entity, as the system that upholds the sins of casteism, classism, sexism, and all other kinds of bigotry, violently. From the mother who wishes her son dead to the father who murders his daughter, each filmmaker places the blame squarely on the family, without leaving them with any excuses of helplessness and social exclusion. It is a call to reject the family that rejects equality.
Paava Kadhaigal is streaming on Netflix India.
All images from YouTube.
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