Netflix is pushing Paava Kadhaigal (Stories of Sin) as a film and a series. Its opening credits mention it as a “Netflix Original Film,” but they show up as episodes on the streaming site. Anyway, these sin stories make you ponder for a while, they don’t leave you with a scar though. They’re not as dark as the night without the moon. You know what’s going to come your way because you’ve already watched the trailer, which is riddled with spoilers.
Each short film lasts for about 30-40 minutes and that may have cut through the haze of the world-building. In the limited time the directors get, they only allow us to peek through the windows of some people’s lives. It’s certainly a well-made anthology but all the shorts do not fit into the same mould. Maybe, they could have served their purpose better in different formats.
Thangam (Directed by Sudha Kongara)
Sudha Kongara is on a run to win the gold. In Amazon Prime Video’s Putham Pudhu Kaalai, her short, Ilamai Idho Idho, was the best, and, even here, Thangam works marvellously on various levels. Kalidas Jayaram, who danced his way through Kongara’s earlier film, wraps himself in a character that requires him to feel terrified for just being alive.
Sathaar (Jayaram) is a vivacious transperson who considers Saravanan (Shanthanu Bhagyaraj) to be her true friend and lover. But she doesn’t know that he can break her heart so easily. Saravanan isn’t a baddie, by the way; he’s romantically interested in Sathaar’s sister, Sahira (Bhavani Sre). It’s a curious case of anger, jealousy, betrayal, and, also, friendship.
While everybody in the village refers to Sathaar as “it” – unworthy of a human pronoun – for refusing to conform to the standards set by the heteronormative society, Saravanan uses “he / him,” as he’s grown accustomed to it. There are many moments of pain and loss in Thangam, and they are all couched in a potpourri of slurs and violence. Jayaram surely knows what he has come into the industry for. He’s clay – and he gives himself to the filmmakers to shape him.
Love Panna Uttranum (Directed by Vignesh Shivan)
Laugh-out-loud gags comfortably sit alongside casteist comments here. Though it sounds like a sketch comedy for a YouTube video, Shivan has managed to pull it off. But that doesn’t mean Love Panna Uttranum is fantastic. To be fair, it’s all over the place. A politician blessing an inter-caste couple in the opening scene is never a good sign. He’s the guy who leads a double life.
Maybe, the phrase “double life” is too heavy to define a criminal. He’s just that – an arrogant, upper caste man who’s mostly interested in boasting about his community’s greatness. When Penelope (Kalki Koechlin) tells Veerasimman (Padam Kumar) that she loves his daughter, Jothilakshmi (Anjali), he doesn’t believe her. He hasn’t heard of two women falling in love before. And, of course, he’s not pleased with whatever’s happening under his roof. These conversations turn ugly in a matter of seconds and there’s an air of steely resistance all around the patriarch.
Also, Shivan could have made the film without indulging in voyeurism. It’s wholly unnecessary and since the surprises stop coming after the first five minutes, the remainder feels like an exercise.
Vaanmagal (Directed by Gautham Menon)
Vaanmagal is the only place on the face of the entire earth where you can find the director-turned-actor in a dhoti. Menon is often accused – half-heartedly – of making urban-centric movies alone. His characters usually speak English and live in metropolises. But Paava Kadhaigal has made him adopt the patois of rural Tamil Nadu.
Menon, who plays Satya, cooks his film slowly, unlike the makers of Thangam and Love Panna Uttranum. There are introductory scenes related to each character of his family – Mathi (Simran), Ponnuthaayi (Aangelina Abraham), Vaidehi (Sathanya), and Bharath (Aadhitya Baaskar). However, their interpersonal relationships do not pop out strongly. Is the duration the spoilsport again? If Menon had written Vaanmagal as a short story and sent it to a magazine for publishing, it’d have been received with arms wide open.
On the screen, Mathi’s thoughts and egregious beliefs appear bland and incorrigible. But the one cinematic nod that Menon gives Vetri Maaran through a poster, featuring the actors of the latter’s film, is stupendous. This is what the visual medium is made for!
Oor Iravu (Directed by Vetri Maaran)
Vaanmagal gives away the main plot point of Oor Iravu via the poster I mentioned above; nonetheless, the real gem is Prakash Raj here. His eyes oscillate between kindness and sheer ruthlessness. Janakiraman (Raj) cannot digest the fact that Sumathi, his daughter, has shunned him and chosen to live on her own terms. He thinks that education is the root cause of misery. He doesn’t want the girls in his family to go to college, read books, and learn what’s happening around them.
Maaran had advocated for education in Asuran (2019), as well, and the social commentator in him is in no mood to give up anytime soon. When Sumathi calls her husband avan (the singular term that’s used for men in Tamil), her mother tells her to say avar (the plural version, which apparently adds a dollop of respect) instead. There you have it – another reason to state why education is important. It removes the barrier between avan and avar.
If the directors had gotten at least an hour each to narrate their paava tales, they could have added more meat to their scripts. By the end of the four episodes, I didn’t particularly feel overwhelmed. I could empathise with the suffering of the protagonists, but all the films had a mechanical precision so to speak. They start with an unexpected feeling of hope and their journeys come to an abrupt halt in the middle of nowhere.
The opening titles, which have the flavour of an animated show, feature a woman reading the novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman in English, written by Perumal Murugan). Paava Kadhaigal, on the other hand, doesn’t have the effervescence of that kind of literary fiction. Plus, all the shorts are set in small towns, perhaps to say that these cruel things occur on a regular basis in close-knit communities. And, surprisingly, young people, like Sathaar and Sumathi, who long for freedom and liberalism look up to Bombay and other such tier-1 cities. But, in India, cities are really just a larger version of the villages. The tentacles of casteism, discrimination, and their ilk are long and sinewy. They are omnipresent.