Paava Kathaigal: Flies in Constriction

All the four shorts in Paava Kathaigal yearn to be unsparing tales of social evils but they all, in one way or the other, tell the same story. The device to pierce through the brutality shifts shapes, but the takeaway remains binary.

At the center of Thangam by Sudha Kongara is Sathaar, an openly transgender Muslim youth. Sathaar (Kalidas Jayaraman) who is derided and abused by the villagers, finds tenderness in her childhood friend Saravanan, a Hindu. It is a triangle love-story if I’m allowed to call. Sathaar’s love for Saravanan is concealed by her playfulness, but when Saravanan asks Sathaar to pass on a love letter to her sister Sahira, she initially mistakes that the letter is for her but upon knowing that it is for her sister, she feels taken advantage of, revealing both the love for Saravanan and the vulnerable-side of her other-wise exuberant personality. Nevertheless, she helps her sister in eloping with Saravanan. 

Kalidas Jayaraman in Thangam

As their respective families learn about the couple eloping, communal tensions erupt and Sathaar’s father tells Saravanan’s father to kill the couple if they get hold of them. This is the first sign that Paava Kathaigal is not as fresh as it appears to be. A spurned Sathaar, whose pride has remained submerged for long by her sexuality, faces the repercussions of the honour. You cannot help but wonder whether the world’s loath towards her sexuality or the religious-pride of villagers that is playing the villain here. Perhaps, both fuel each other and collectively reduce Sathaar’s life to a mere life-form. The film’s most moment is emanates from kindness, when Saravanan hugs Sathaar, and the latter explains that the phsyical closeness felt unadulterated for the first time. A simple dialogue clearly paints her entire life and the apathetic world around.

The second short, Love Panna Uttranum by Vignesh Shivan is the most tonally different of all; not in a very good way. Unlike other films, honour is orally emphasized and it is in your face. Aadhilakshmi (Anjali) informs her father, a caste-obsessed politician, about her relationship with their driver, and you get no prize for guessing his response. However, the film is darkly comic in ways one may not expect to be. And that’ll either put you off or you’ll dig it. I, for one, found many narrative choices questionable. It’s self-aware but it also reduces a major plot point – which was supposed to be its core – to a simple twist and a message that have a momentary pay-off but hover when compared to the gravity of the films it is placed amidst. Inventive, yes; but what’s inventiveness that adds no value or worse, tarnishes the completeness of the anthology. 

Kalki Koechlin in Love Panna Uttranum

In a scene, a grieving daughter, having learned her father’s evil nature, questions him about his caste-pride and its futility, which is probably the most generic part of the entire anthology. Shivan’s film is also the filmiest of the four, containing references to other films and even an Anirudh song. In a scene, the film’s stand-out character Narikutty (who has completely misread Titanic) refers to Kadhal, among other films, just before executing an honour-killing, and Kadhal’s impact has been such that when Saravanan and Sahira in Thangam return to their village after marriage, my memory kept reminding me of the devastating climax of the 2004-film by Balaji Sakthivel. As a standalone film, Love Panna Uttranum may have worked, but the short doesn’t quite belong to the gallery it is currently in. In fact, it even goes against its ‘normalize homosexual relationships’ message, as it feels that a patriarch finds an inter-caste marriage a less harmful alternative to same-sex marriage. Not quite the message it intended to give.

Gautham Menon’s Vaanmagal is visually unique. Unlike the other three, this one has more light, both visually and thematically. Also, a major part of it happens in the exteriors and the interiors are not grim either. Here, the happiness of a picture-perfect family is ruined when their younger daughter, Ponnuthaayi – who dreams of flying – is sexually abused and honour comes in their way of seeking justice. Reluctant that the news of the rape may discolor their family in the eyes of society, the family battles to erase the sinister deed committed upon their 12-year-old daughter. In a scene, the emotionally-shattered mother, Mathi (Simran) literally tries to wipe out the bruises on her daughter’s body. She wants to remove the traces of the violence her daughter has been subjected to and move on with their lives. Her husband Sathya (Gautam Menon, who cast himself as the father), too, conforms to her after a point, although he is ashamed of himself for failing to protect his daughter. Much of the film is spent illustrating the family’s helplessness and indecisiveness, but it is not distressing. While it makes for easy viewing, it doesn’t add to the burden of the characters, probably because we feel confused whether to be outraged by how much they value honour, although we feel their pain. 

A still from Vaanmagal

Moreover, Gautam Menon feels out of place in a film that is otherwise supported by believable performances. However, amid films that play with honour around love and the subsequent disdain it attracts, Vaanmagal breaks the uniformity in terms of plot as the issue here is far more internal, and the film is, indeed, a breath of fresh air. On a level, though, the film feels incomplete as a character chooses the path of violence to avenge the sin and the arc never finds closure. Also, in a film where suffering was majorly internal, an external outburst of a proportion that could have been passive in a masala film feels misplaced and is more of a mass-moment, even though the revenge itself is a sin.

The last film in the anthology, Oor Iravau by Vetri Maaran is the most powerful of the four and it is also the film that leverages the short-film format to the fullest. While the previous three films span longer in terms of the narrative (Thangam even has a time-lapse), this film is compact both in its concept and setting. Like the title says, the story unfolds over a night, rendering it the darkest of the lot. Similar to Thangam and Love Panna Uttranum, it uses love as a tool to exhibit honour. A daughter, having married a person whom the father (Prakash Raj) disapproved of, returns to the village for the first time since she left after her father convinces her for a baby shower.

The details are in the tiny conversations here. We learn that the father has forbidden his younger daughters from attending college as he attributes education to his elder daughter’s decision to marry someone from outside their community. Moving back and forth between the present (set in the village) and past (set in the city) through the first half of the runtime, there is a clear contrast between the two settings visually. In sequences set in the city, when the father visits to convey his change of heart, are shot in day-light in an apartment painted in white. On the other hand, the village where the most crucial part of the story transpires is shot in the eponymous night, foreshadowing the impending doom. 

Sai Pallavi in Oor Iravu

While Vaanmagal requites the perpetrator and Love Panna Uttranam shows a change of heart, the perpetrators in Thangam and Oor Iravu get away with their crimes. In Thangam, it doesn’t matter because the communal-honour is the real antagonist and the filmmaker doesn’t try to give a human form to it. Oor Iravu, though, goes to length saying that justice won’t prevail in the real world. Although all the filmmakers tried to push the envelope in terms of depiction of brutality, they were constricted by their own choices to make something that viewers have the stomach for. It is only Vetri Maaran who pushed it. A bit. 

***

Paava Kathaigal is streaming on Netflix

Also, the order of the episodes assigned by Netlfix is not perfect. I’d reccommed you to watch in this order:

  1. Love Panna Uttranum
  2. Thangam
  3. Oor Iravu
  4. Vaan Magal

Watch the trailer of film here:

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