Parsing Art and People Like Us

Paava Kadhaigal Review

Jaby Koay is a YouTuber who’s known for his reaction videos. For some reason, he reviews a giga-load of Indian content. In his reaction video to the trailer of Paava Kadhaigal (Stories of Sin, Netflix Anthology), it’s quickly clear that he’s able to grasp the core values and intent of the series to the same extent that he can pronounce the title of the movie. Which is not at all — and that is completely understandable.

He tries to compare lack of acceptance of inter-caste love to homosexuality and talks about how the latter is an “uphill battle” and “much harder than…” — there’s a pause after which he says, “than that.” He’s completely unable to articulate what “that” is.

The world of rural Tamil Nadu and its values are so incredibly far from his Los Angeles-Liberal domain, that it’s understandably hard for him to even begin to process a people whose language mainstreams the idea that honor is so important — that dying helps uphold it.

The idea of shame is routinely articulated as not just one word but a series of nouns that you are expected to possess —vekkam, maanam, rOsam, soodu, soranai and the nuanced semantic differences between each of those words matter less. What matters is the reality that there’s a lot that can impinge upon us and we must respond to that in line with prescribed codes because… This is the Way.

It’s totally expected that Jaby Koay will not be able to process the Tamil underbelly of Paava Kadhaigal regardless of how culturally open he may be to “weird, gut-wrenching Asian” stories. He’s a rank outsider. But how many of us can process it given that these worlds are likely so far from our own?

Paava Kadhaigal doesn’t just mean “Sinful Tales” as it is marketed but also, “Stories of Victims” of which the system ensures there are many.

It’s that eye to detail and human stories that the four directors bring. Something one absolutely cannot do if you don’t know the people, their culture and things they will NOT tell you. These are things you need to observe, process and make accessible to others. Few people can do that better than directors, writers and cinematographers and we are lucky to have these four artists who took the trouble to do that with a cast that does justice to the core point which really isn’t about caste or honor killings — that’s on the surface. There are no spoilers here because you should watch it knowing that lead characters die. What these stories can do for you, if you will not resist it, is tell you a little more about what people truly are up against and how little it’s likely to change. What we see across the board is a trap — the prickly-golden chains of conditional and toxic familial love, the pressure of society to conform, the utter vilification of individuality and how the system ensures that anyone who deviates, will be eliminated so the status quo can be maintained.

The series starts with the credits in the foreground of an animation that seems to say — I love you, baby girl, you’re appreciated and protected. The girl seems to grow up, leave home, marry what seems to be a lower-caste man and has a baby. To read that as such is to look at a well-crafted tiramisu and label it bakery bread.

This is a primer to establish that as much as is invested in a child, a payoff is expected. Not in grades, not in urban notions of “stay in school, don’t do drugs, find your passion” — but you stay within the confines of what the big 4 tell you. That’s Parents, Family, Society and Religion. These are the codes shown in the song. This is why, for many parents, education is not seen as a liberator but an enabler of bad behavior and deviation from these codes. Especially for girls.

The Tradition song in Fiddler on the Roof, set in 1905, perhaps best describes how important it is to stay within the codes drawn by parents, family and religion and if you do that, everything will be good. What the animated intro also tells us is that in much of India — birth, menstruation, marriage, pregnancy are all never personal milestones, they’re all societal (of the many) celebrations loaded with sacred codes, rituals and expectations. This is important to process for anyone who lives in a nuclear family in a city where self-expression is not sufficient reason for snuffing life out of a person.

From thousands of interviews across the country, I know with a fair degree of authority that what is shown in these four films is a faithful representation of where much of the country is. The end credits in some of the stories seem to give the impression that they are real stories and “ripped from the headlines,” which would be because they do happen. For those born into most Indian families, deviating from the norm in terms of religious and gender identity is unthinkable. As is pursuing a passion or person to love (even if same caste.) Living in the 4–6 metros and occasionally traveling abroad often leads to a denial of this vast reality.

The trick to being able to process Paava Kadhaigal is to not do a Jaby Koay and assume things by superimposing our strong lenses but to hear out these four crews who know what they’re doing and the people they’re talking about in these stories.While each story is worth more than one watch to really pick up on all of the nuance — there’s a lot they do with sets, language and color.

Oor Iravu (One Night): PREGNANCY

The two different worlds of urban, more cosmopolitan Bangalore where life after an inter-caste marriage is possible versus Thindivanam, where it absolutely is not. It’s not just the decor, the clothes, the freedom, the possibilities that are limitless outside the rural parental cage if you’re young and ambitious, it’s also the language that’s entirely different. Vettrimaran brings to this an eye to detail that requires multiple watches but given how the story goes, it’s also not easy to keep rewatching. Even the cups convey cues of a progressive, hopeful future versus a regressive, cynical past.

That a father will kill his own daughter because she married a Dalit man is common Indian knowledge. That’s not what the story is trying to tell you. It tells you the story of a woman who knew enough to elope and not naively believe that her father will “forgive” her and accept her lover (which many Indian daughters do, often to end in Shakespearean tragedies.) But she loses that sense of mistrust once she’s pregnant and hormonal and that’s a fatal mistake more youngsters should learn to not make. It’s that mistrust of the father she loves that had kept her alive earlier.

While the average viewer may typically side with young lovers, the story keeps reinforcing the idea “see what hell this child/sibling/relative put us through.” That’s the thing with elopement in cases like these — if you’re young you can run away from it and hide in the city with some anonymity. Those who remain never can forget and they live the dishonor, burden and ignominy over and over and over again in ways urbanites can rarely understand. In the end, as the daughter dies she asks her father, “Let me die with dignity.” She cannot even say “die with dignity” in Tamil because that’s a construct that comes from the western and urban world.

Vaanmagal (Daughter of the skies): MENSTRUATION & RAPE

Features Gautam Menon in so wooden and subtle an avatar that for the average Tamilian one could wonder why he’s not acting. Unlike the previous story this features a family that’s still traditional but has some progressive codes like the wife calling her husband by his first name, the husband and wife being intimate despite being undeniably middle-aged, daughters who will be educated and cherished, more affluence which doesn’t mean progressive but allows for more indulgence etc.

When the youngest daughter is raped is when it all comes unraveling and it’s an interesting ride to watch what transpires on screen versus what urban sensibilities tell us makes sense. If you’re thinking rape kit, possible need for abortion, counseling, police — all of these are nowhere in the schema of this world. And that’s broader Indian reality.

Simran, the mother, is truly made to work for her pay where she carries much of the story on her ability to emote. If you’re a mother, it’s extremely hard not to feel empathetic, visceral pain in every crevice of every nerve. There’s barely any dialogue but her face is an entire Plutchik’s wheel of emotions where you can see her go through denial, shock, agony, anger, disgust, fear, empathy/pain/sadness — over and over again, each time she looks at her raped daughter. That’s the binary there — she has one raped daughter and one unraped daughter. It’s an adjective that destroys her from within and the family all around.

In what seems to be an homage to an old Tamil movie, when a mother learns her daughter is raped, she first bathes her to wash off “his touch” but also all of the memories. So much for rape kit. This particular scene is beautifully executed where she does it once and runs through the emotions and later does it again and realizes the futility of attempting to “wash off” a daughter’s rape.

The story and its execution’s biggest success from a standpoint of what it tells broader India — “people not like us” — is that a raped daughter can move on and live well. By making it seem like the story ends in a predictably gory manner but allowing a “retake,” Gautam Menon tells many mothers and daughters what they need to hear. By allowing the mother to articulate her inner dialogue, he recalibrates the average mother’s values — the belief that women’s bodies (breasts, face, words and between the legs) are temples that hold honor and need to be protected. There’s less redemption for brothers who feel the need to protect their sisters’ honor but in terms of how the story ends, it’s a giant leap for mass Indian womankind.

The writing also does a nice job with turning “my honor will board a ship and depart” (common usage to talk about being socially embarrassed) to “I’ll use this body and conquer Mars.” It sounds sketchy and specious in English but it is well done and more importantly, it gives the language of overcoming trauma and relying on hope for people who need it most.

Love Panna Uttranam (If you want to love, leave OR Leave them to Love): LOVE, MARRIAGE

It’s hard not to see this one as a warning to those who want to escape the world that prevents them from loving and marrying those whom they want to be with — it has a delicious start with one of the prime honor-killing instigators almost virtue signaling to establish how killing young lovers and making sure they don’t get together, is what the market wants. That’s how order is maintained.

As the second story in the series what it also tries to establish on the heels of the first is that children are markers of honor. They are NOT little fledglings to be protected and nurtured to fly the nest. If they do anything to cross that pre-determined boundary, it’s better to destroy the marker. While it speaks matter-of-factly about lesbianism (in the world of Kalki Koechlin) it’s evident that that’s not okay either since the codes here are more grey than as with Dalit and other caste, especially dominant aruvaal (machete)-wielding castes. Considering gay marriage isn’t legal in the country, wherever the movie is at — even with the straight lover deaths involved — is still ahead of where the law is at.

Thangam (Gold/Darling): GENDER IDENTITY, LOVE

Kalidas Jayram is spectacular in this as a trans-woman and reminded me of a field recruiter I knew from TN who lived in a time where the idea of transitioning would never have been a possibility for him. Wiki interestingly refers to the character as “She” right off the bat, which is relatively new considering the trans struggle in India is not so much about preferred pronouns as it has been about living with dignity. It’s also a beautiful intersection of religion vs. gender vs. small town bigotry and a toss up where you’re not fully sure what specifically will result in a crude, barbaric death — which is guaranteed to come.

Back to the Parsing…

There are Easter eggs throughout and I’m not sure I picked up on all that we’re supposed to notice — but what they seem to tell us is that all of these social constructs are interconnected, entrenched, largely immutable and we have victims all around us.

In the third story, in a blink-and-miss-it sequence, the final outcome of the fourth story is the headline in a newspaper that’s hanging in a storefront. It shows the pictures of the father and daughter from the final and fourth story and declares how she was killed when she came for her baby shower. No published review I read referred to this, which indicates how many such instances could be missed.

The red that is highlighted in the initial animation — celebrates the color in Zhang Yimou style with its rich symbology for its spirituality and purity but also for the color of the rose (love), blood (menstruation, birth) and possible gore and death.

“It is unwise to trivialize that which one simply does not understand.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes by Spock (Star Trek Beyond) and also one of my favorite quotes ever. Paava Kadhaigal fairly represents a broader world of rural, regressive, traditional India (also mass urban India) and does it with a more nuanced accuracy if we’re talking about the Tamil context.

It’s possible to hate it, disagree with it, be repelled by it and annoyed — but the loss isn’t that of the makers here.

It’s completely understandable to not want to be part of any discussion that’s this steeped in regression. It’s also possible to reject it because these aren’t Dalit stories told by Dalits. But it is also art that deserves more than misrepresentation or outright rejection.

If you’re in the business of understanding people or art, it asks for a willingness to walk the walk in shoes that are not our own, in a world that’s way too close to us. For each young person living in these homes, clamped down by these values and norms — I sincerely hope it gives them some strength to begin to break free. And stay alive.

Nima Srinivasan is a brand, culture and consumer insights specialist who also watches movies. And Netflix.

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