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I recently watched the much talked about series Paava Kadhaigal (Stories of Sin) on Netflix. The anthology with four stories is directed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivam and Vetri Maaran. I got interested in the series after learning that it was based on the theme of honour and family dynamics and how it interacted with issues of gender, caste, and sexuality.
The first thing which struck me after watching the anthology was the omnipotence of the male characters. While it is expected that anything which deals with honour will have violent men involved, the lack of agency which the filmmakers accorded to the female characters was disappointing. Considering that stories have the hoppower to challenge the norms in real-life and to empower people who don't fit in, Paava Kadhaigal fell short.
In fact, watching the series, it never felt as if empowerment or understanding complex issues was what the directors were gunning for. In India, where honour resides in people's bodies, castes, gender and sexuality, it is not really a tough job to bring shock value, darkness, or violence to fictional accounts. The reality in some cases is far worse, but to offer no redemption to persons being violated, completely leaving out their perception from stories and worse still, using marginalisation of women and queer persons to merely forward the plot and to shock, without bringing out nuances in their characters or giving them space to express themselves is beyond disappointing.
Thangam (Precious), the first segment in Paava Kadhaigal, is a story which focusses on the life of a transgender person named Satthar in a small Tamil Nadu village in the 1980s. Satthar is played by a cis male actor Kalidas Jayram. Satthar, doesn't hide her femininity, is treated like an object of ridicule, and subjected to violence and sexual assault by local village goons. She can, however, always count on her friend Sarvannan (a Hindu) to protect her. When an oblivious Sarvannan, whom she has loved for a long time, falls for her sister instead, Satthar does everything in her power to help the couple, putting her own needs and life second.
While it is shown in this segment how not fitting into a violent heteronormative society can bring dire consequences upon those who refuse to toe the line, we do not see a lot of how a marginalised person looks at the world. As soon as Satthar is established as being different, she is turned into a character who is merely there to feed Sarvannan's saviour complex (while ironically being the saviour herself) and then a martyr. The only time we see how Satthar perceives the world or has made her peace with others mistreating her is when she says of the goons harassing her, "Those creeps get off on the way I talk to them, they are henpecked men abused by their wives." After this we see Satthar as a martyr to forward the couple's love story.
Sarvannan seems to realise at the end that Satthar loved him and feels guilty for abandoning his friend and tells the whole village off for not standing up for Satthar. Ironically, while they were in the village, when she confided in him about her plans to get a gender surgery and her monetary needs, there is not even a single follow up question by Sarvannan on how she intended to collect the balance amount, let alone offer a single rupee or transport arrangements. All she got for love was a red lipstick to save her lips from the great danger - chewing paan, which was projected onto her by the "hero"!
Without any community, peers, and support, Satthar makes the mistake of seeing that one person who treats her like a human and a friend, as someone worthy of her love. I could not help but think that without Sarvannan in the picture, Satthar would have gone on to get her surgery, escape to a possibly more liberal city like Bombay and might have had a chance at a decent life, real friends and true love.
While Thangam presumably was supposed to bring out the society's sin in being violent to a person who doesn't follow gender norms, the much worse sin that I see is that of performative allyship in Sarvannan's friendship, which ends up alienating Satthar even more than she already was.
Love Panna Uttranum
The second segment of Paava Kadhaigal is titled Love Panna Uttranum. Directed by Vignesh Shivan, it's perhaps the most vapid of the series - a clickbait of a movie ever! It begins with Kalki Koechlin (yes, I was surprised too, that vapid and that name could be used in such proximity in the same piece), telling us about how there are two different types of people in the world based on caste and that we had to understand the twins Aadhilakshmi and Jothilakshmi to understand these two different types of people / castes.
The twins' father is a politician who conducts inter-caste marriages to prove to the world that he is an egalitarian and not a caste-fanatic (which he is). Away from the cameras and public, 'honour' killings are conducted by him via his henchmen, the chief of whom is Mr. Narikutty, a short man - ironically, in a series supposedly critiquing society's obsession with heteronormative and patriarchal structures, the villain must be a man who is less than the average height.
Aadhi and Jothi both are in a relationship, but obviously too scared to tell their father of their respective lovers. Aadhi however believes that her father had changed (due to him conducting inter-faith marriages) and confides in him that she is in love with his car driver and that they want to marry each other. On the other hand, we are led to believe that Jothi and Kalki's character, Penelope, are in a relationship throughout the story with the revelation at the end that they are not! The story goes on to narrate different outcomes, depending on how each twin came out to their father about their relationship.
How there are two types of people, based on caste and principles of natural justice is never quite clear. What is clear, is that because a person is the patriarch, he will be forgiven for any transgressions, no matter how dire, violent, or traumatising; and how sexuality and same-sex relationships can be appropriated to trick people into watching an otherwise uninspiring and frankly pathetic attempt at satire. What an incredible waste of good actors' talents! If an honest movie were to be made about the storyline and direction in Love Panna Uttranum, it would be like filming the whole process of sin itself.
WARNING: Contains mentions of child sexual abuse from the film, do not read ahead if you might be triggered.
The third segment of Paava Kadhaigal, Vaanmagal (The Loss of Innocence) directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon, is about a middle-class family, whose happiness is shattered by the rape of their younger daughter, Ponnuthaayi, who is only 12 years old and is the apple of her parents' eye.
Initially in the segment, when Ponnuthaayi's older sister, Vaidehi, gets her first period, it is briefly highlighted how young girls are simultaneously celebrated (coming of age party) and treated as impure and policed, "Sit at one place.. sic. , don't touch this and that, I can't keep cleaning everything you touch," which comes from the mother.
In the latter part, the family struggles to come to terms with their daughter's rape, but the concern for the daughter seems to be focussed more on how she has had to "grow up" before her age. In particular, it is disturbing that the mother views her daughter as impure or stained and quite vigorously bathes the child, as if to remove that stain from her.
The girl is also isolated from her siblings and has nobody to hear her out or give any explanation to her. Her brother's attempts at reporting to the police are constantly thwarted by the parents because they are worried about what that might mean for Ponnuthaayi and the family's honour. Ultimately, the brother hunts down the rapist and inflicts violence upon him - forced to seek revenge, without being there for his sister and possibly traumatising himself by being violent - all because of the parents' refusal to either report the case or have an honest conversation with their children until it is too late, for the son, at least.
Ponnuthaayi's own trauma as a survivor and her own view of the world goes unexpressed in this story! There was perhaps, in this story, an opportunity to give the child some agency over her life and explore the trauma from the child's point of view, but unfortunately, as in most real-life cases, her life became in the movie as it was projected upon her by the family.
There was some relief at the end, and a contrast from the rest of the series, in the father's love and understanding for his daughter. Vaanamangal might be an honest look at what happens in realilty when a family is so traumatised, but it was a missed opportunity to tell the story of girls and how their perception of shame or honour is constantly connected with their bodies.
The last segment of Paava Kadhaigal, Oor Iravu (One Night) by Vetri Maaran, is about how a woman who elopes to marry her lover, hopes that her father and family will accept her. Her wish seems to come true when her father comes to see her and promises a baby shower. In most of India, a baby (biological) is seen as a miracle that will magically reunite estranged parents, bring marital harmony and in this case, win over the grandparents and create a big happy family where all will be forgiven. Fortunately, this film quashes that illogical assumption and doesn't forgive a conniving and murderous father.
Sai Pallavi's character, who is her father's favourite, elopes to marry a person of a lower caste. When her father comes to meet her with hopes and promises of reconciliation, it is worth noting that he doesn't even accept a glass of water from the husband. It is a mark of how ingrained the caste system is in the Indian culture that the husband does not revolt at this mistreatment. While this scene might have served as a plot point to keep the husband away from the baby shower, it is quite unsettling to see how the lack of honour and pride is dismissed when it has to do with a person of a lower caste. There isn't even an attempt at explanation or an apology from the father when the husband suggests that the baby shower be held at a neutral venue because he knows and accepts that the family might not be cordial with him because of his caste.
It is even worse, when the audience is expected (and perhaps most of us) to accept this scene at face value without bothering about what it implies about the undercurrents of casteism in Indian society.
The film goes on to highlight the consequences of Pallavi's elopement on her younger sisters, none of whom could finish their studies because of their controlling father and the society's regressive views.
The conclusion, though gut-wrenching, doesn't come as a complete shock. In a country where parents are seen as kind of gods, where in cases of domestic abuse parents are assumed to be acting in the child's best interests, this film at least doesn't make excuses or tries to sympathise with the parents.
It does, however, over-simplify the character of a young woman, brave enough to adapt to life in a big city, who can drive her own car, as a picture of wide-eyed innocence. It is inconceivable that she didn't notice the ill-treatment of her husband, or his absence on the day prior to the baby shower or her unwavering faith in her father. Taking away a strong woman's character even in her tragic arc in story-telling is something I cannot overlook, and in that aspect, Oor Iravu is disappointing.
Paava Kadhaigal misses on many opportunities, and misrepresents and misplaces focus. In the exploration of sins, in the exploration of systemic oppression, it is important to go a little deeper into the issues one seeks to explore. The series explores circumstances stemming from the marginalisation of people but it is almost like an observation by an alien species who have no emotional connection with the people who are oppressed.
It feels like an appropriation of marginalised people to deliver a mildly shocking, tear-jerking telling from a privileged viewpoint. The anthology neither gives voice nor does it deign to give an oppressed trans person, or women or children as having a strong character or the ability to express themselves except in a stereotypical performance meant to make things believable to a patriarchal male gaze.
Courtesy: Stills from Paava Kadhaigal/Netflix