Paava Kadhaigal: Identity and Community (With Insights From Kalki Koechlin)
It is curious that Paava Kadhaigal loosely translates to ‘sin stories’- stories of what the hegemonic society constructs as sin- morally abhorrent and condemnable for not subscribing to the dominant worldview or identity. Directed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Menon, Vetrimaaran, and Vignesh Shivan, Paava Kadhaigal is a Tamil language anthology comprising of four stories. Each story has a different setting, tone, character range, and narrative style and hence remains a unique audio-visual experience. However, a common motif that threads them together is the looming presence of intolerance and the constructed façade of honor premised in archaic notions. Against this backdrop emerge realistic protagonists which unambiguously represent the oppressed, the subaltern; the constructed ‘other’ in terms of multiple social systems of gender, religion, and caste. The introductory animation that plays with red symbolism captures the essence of it- red color morphs into symbols of blood relations, rage, tradition, continuity of life, and its various aspects. The extent of transgression and evoking of emotions varies across stories but on the large, the anthology is a promising one and a cinematic delight. This becomes particularly relevant in a world where mainstream cinema, is being increasingly driven by commercial factors that operate on shallow, repetitive, and gaudy tropes. Here is a glimpse into the most striking features of the four stories that amalgamate to form a statement:
Chronologically the first in series Thangam is set against the backdrop of rural Tamil Nadu in the 1980s and creates the momentum and sets the tone for what is to follow. The protagonist Sathar is a Muslim transgender woman defined primarily through his (pronouns’ as used by the character) love for Sarvanam – his Hindu childhood friend whom he affectionately calls Thangam (Beloved). Sathar is to be understood in the intersectional framework of gender and religion to amplify his subaltern position and the ostracization and harassment he faces. He dismisses everyday objectification and is only concerned with Sarvanam’s wellbeing to an extent that he can let go of his love for the latter’s happiness. Saravanan’s routine intervention in Sathar’s exploitation despite being mocked by the village as Sathar’s ‘husband’, his overarching respect for his emotions and identity can be read as an undertone of the homoerotic potential of the story.
Defined in unadulterated innocence, relentless selfless love, child-like happiness, and brutal oppression by intolerant men of the village; Sathar played by Kalidas Jayaram is a character that tends to stay with you with his smiling Betel stained lips calling out his beloved. At a point in the narrative, upon being hugged, Sathar breaks down he has never been affectionately touched by anyone and this scene unpacks the pain which is muffle din his light-hearted jabs at the rudeness of the community. This is met by the reckless patriarchal power of the community that assumes authority over the identities and bodies of people of different genders. Sathar’s story is tearfully tragic to an extent that it leaves you sobbing. The narrative incorporates the thematic tension in the literal setting when Sathar, running from his indicated rapists and murderers, is met by closed doors of people- Hindus, Muslims, his family, and his community alike since all these realms close doors to his identity alike.
Love Panna Uttranam
A striking feature of Love Panna Uttranum is the fact that it applies a light comedic tone to address serious issues of honor killing, murder, caste, and archaic notions of community honor. The story, narrated by Penelope played by Kalki Koechlin, revolves around Jothilakshmi, one of the twin daughters of a rural feudal lord, Veerasimman (Padam Kumar) who displays an endorsement of inter- marriage for political purposes while being a staunch opponent. Incited but his community and in order to preserve an abstract, constructed, skewed ‘honor’, Veerasimman gets Aatilakshmi killed as who dared to propose marriage with their driver who belonged to a different caste. The speaker figure for the community remains a tiny but highly intolerant and aggressive man Narikutty. Suspecting something wrong upon arrival, Penelope and Jothilakshmi along with B3, navigate the prying eyes of the community and even play a pretense of a lesbian relationship only to later find out of Aatilaksmi’s murder.
Upon being asked of the experience of working on the project, Kalki told TheVibe, “The experience is the same as any (film) where there is intimacy and audacity involved- exciting and nerve-wracking.” We also felt that the narrative limits the scope of transgression towards the end by reassuring the audience that Jothilaksmi is actually heterosexual and the lesbian relationship was only enacted to muffle the real relationship with B3. It is a bit of a let down to a story that set high goals. To this, she said, “ Penelope is gay and her partner is the one in the passenger seat in the end” and this promises hope. On playing Penelope she said “I can relate to knowing a language that everyone assumes you don’t know and eves dropping…” Well, Kalki we would say you got us there!
Literally translated to ‘The daughter of the skies’, Vaanmagal explores the gruesome reality of rape, the stigma surrounding it, victim-blaming, and the unchecked patriarchal power over female bodies, narratives, and actions. At the center of the story is a middle-class family of Sathya and Mathi who have three children- two of them being daughters. When the elder daughter Vaidehi attains puberty, there is an exhibit of an array of traditional rituals celebrating a woman’s reproductive capacity. On the surface, it appears in terms of Mathi tutoring her daughter about feminine virtue, dignity, and honor which comes by subscribing to modest ways of living and preserving themselves. We as viewers occupy an objective position from where we can easily unpack the politics of a society that celebrates women for their fertility, limits them to domestic arenas, and shames them upon being mutilated by men who assume agency over their bodies. The stark juxtaposition that lays bare the hypocrisy of the ‘honor’ and the ‘shaming’ that an essentially patriarchal society inflicts, is that of the rituals of bathing and cleansing that follow the puberty of Vaidehi and the rape of Ponnuthayyi. Not only does the narrative aptly understands the trauma of a minor rape survivor but also the skewed conversations of honor that follow. The scope of the latter being such that Mathi even contemplates pushing her daughter off the cliff. The story leaves multiple questions for its viewership- Is masculine rage in the form of castration a solution to rape? What is the politics of the association of women’s bodies and honor?
Another gut-wrenching narrative that takes you by shock is the final- Oor Iravu. The narrative begins in media res and we’re told that Sumathi married across castes against her father, the patriarch’s will. Janakiraman (Prakash Raj) visits his daughter‘s city home and the story appears to be a binary between rural and traditional and urban and modern as also of generations and parental love and reconciliation. All these binaries are undone when under the pretext of a baby shower, Janakiraman poisons Sumathi in their rural house. The helplessness and the tragedy of Sumathi take an immensely realistic form as they are met by the continuing trope of an abstract family honor borne by a woman’s uterus. As we see gory imagery of Sumathi’s uterus disintegrating alongside her perishing life, we are left to wonder how abstract notions of orthodoxy can hold more value than human life and blood ties. At a heightened point in the climax of Sumathi’s murder, she tells her father that she had learned of the baby’s capacity for mother’s emotion and her baby had been scared at the moment she realized what had unfolded. The climax shows the inability of mother figures- Sumathi’s mother and herself against the patriarchal claiming of pure bloodlines over any other humane emotion. The fact that the narrative is inspired by a true event makes these notions even more relevant and urgent.
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