Trigger Warning: Violence
Paava Kadhaigal (Stories of Sin) is a Netflix anthology of four short films, directed by four prominent directors from the Tamil film industry. It is a scathing social drama, with brilliant performances, meticulously crafted from scripting to music and editing. The introduction song that shows a girl child growing up, traversing through the different phases of her life, ends with a blood-red Sun rising over a temple. There is anger that is as deeply entrenched throughout the anthology, as the societal prejudices, that invoke the most horrific forms of violence. Each of the four short films in Paava Kadhaigal shows a copious amount of bloodshed, but what is even more irking is the violence of words: the off-handed remarks by passers-by, literal nobodies, but collectively they all seem to form such a formidable, ghastly force that shapes and at times, destroys lives.
Paava Kadhaigal starts off with Sudha Kongara’s Thangam (Gold/My Precious) that narrates the story of Satthar (Kalidas Jayaram), a trans woman who is in love with her childhood friend, Saravanan (Shathnu Bhagyaraj), whom she lovingly refers to as Thangam. Satthar faces constant ridicule in her community for being a trans woman and when an unthinkable event happens, she is forced to lose the little support that she had and is turned down by everyone she seeks shelter from, including her own family.
Thangam is 30-minutes packed with painful moments, and despite the beautiful song that shows a cheerful trio, we are left weeping at the horrific turn of events towards the climax. It succeeds in showing the emotions and vulnerabilities of a trans person, whose only crime is that of being one. Despite the utterly bleak situations she is faced with, Satthar has dreams and hopes and complete loyalty to her friend whom she protects at the cost of her own life. Perhaps the angry, hurt questions that the short film poses to society can be summed up in a couple lines from the song lyrics- “What’s wrong with the way I’m born? Am I to blame for that?”
The second short in Paava Kadhaigal is Vignesh Sivan’s Love Panna Uttranum (Let the Lovers Be), begins with a fiery Tamil quote by Avvaiyar about the existence of two castes alone, based on ethics and justice, denying credibility to every other form of caste. It is voiced by Kalki Koechlin in crystal-clear Tamil (who also says a few choice Tamil swear words, later in the film). There is a rather intimidating background music running to establish the mercilessness of the nana (dad) and his group of gundas. This Paava Kadhaigal short highlights the hypocrisy of the nana who is also a political leader who preaches equality and conducts inter-caste marriages, but inwardly is a coward who cannot accept his daughter’s choices and is easily influenced by his lead minion to commit unthinkable crimes.
The film plays out like a thriller, has interesting characters such as an intuitive Penelope (Kalki) and B-cube (who looks like a Tamil doppelganger of Snoop Dogg) and has a rare element of humour in it. The scene where the minion confuses the word ‘lesbians’ with the sports channel ESPN is hilarious. The climax that features a Tamil rap song on the freedom to love, is one of the lighter, less brutal ones among the four shorts.
The third segment of Paava Kadhaigal, Gautam Menon’s Vaanmagal (Daughter of the Skies) revolves around Ponnuthaayi, a little girl who dreams of reaching for the stars. When she is subject to a deeply traumatic event and her close-knit family comes to know of it, the ground beneath their feet shatters. This story in Paava Kadhaigal explores the staunch notions of purity and the disgusting habit of victim-shaming that exists within rape culture.
Simran’s performance as Mathi stands out, as she perfectly gets into the skin of the enraged and astounded mother of the child. She elicits the deepest empathy in a scene where she bathes her child, wrapping her arms around her, weeping and in another scene, where she breaks down, realising no amount of water is going to undo what had occurred to her. The film ends with a shockingly powerful dialogue when the mother attempts to dismantle the ingrained views of a family’s honour resting on the shoulders of its women.
The last two shorts of Paava Kadhaigal become more gut-wrenching to watch because the victims of misogyny and caste prejudices are no longer just grown-ups but mercilessly include children, even those unborn. Vetrimaran’s Oor Iravu (the most hard-hitting one perhaps) begins with Sumathi (Sai Pallavi) imagining how her unborn child would be along with the visuals of cartoon drawings of a baby. To think about this scene once 30 minutes into the film (as it approaches its brutal climax) is blood-curdling.
Sai Pallavi draws you into the contrasting worlds of Sumathi: the one she left behind and the one she made, with her husband. The village she was born into punishes her family and ostracises them after she leaves to marry someone from another caste. Her siblings are shamed, denied their right to education and her whole family is shunned. The antagonist is not her father alone, but the entire society that influenced his decision, that does not flinch at murdering for protecting the notion of honour.
Paava Kadhaigal is an important watch that forces you to observe the realities of being a part of the marginalised trans community in a society that denies them their right to life and dignity, of the many horrors of placing ‘honour’ between the legs of a woman, of the idea that there are laws in love and marriage and stepping beyond them could cost you your dear life, of valuing societal acceptance over the lives of your own children, and, for the same reason, it could also easily be categorised as tragedy porn.
It is deeply uncomfortable to watch the dreams and hopes of each of the victims get quashed or irrevocably changed and even more disturbing to find that those who harm them are often their closest families themselves. Paava Kadhaigal is tremendously relevant at a time when laws such as anti-conversion and love jihad are introduced in some states, which in turn tighten their stronghold over the citizens, at times restricting personal freedom and eventually, choking ‘the unfortunate’. It also serves as a resounding wake-up call for those who proclaim ‘honour’ above all else while, committing the most dishonourable and inhumane acts themselves.
However, despite everything, Paava Kadhaigal also ends up making the same mistake of taking up space and appropriation of voices as several mainstream films have done in the past: when a cis-heterosexual man such as Kalidas Jayaram is cast to play the role of a trans woman instead of someone from the trans community itself, that is a mistake which cannot be justified by saying: “But Kalidas Jayaram was amazing as Satthar.” Appropriation and mis-representation of narratives has to stop. Period.
Divya Venkattu is, categorically, a ‘woke millennial’ who enjoys discussing and dissecting books and movies. She is a writer, constantly torn between celebrating life for its little joys and renouncing it for its many oddities and injustices. She has completed her Bachelor’s at IIM-Indore. She can be found on Instagram, LinkedIn and Medium.