Paava Kadhaigal movie review: A mixed bag

Paava Kadhaigal cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Shanthnu Bhagyaraj, Bhavani Sre, Gautham Menon, Simran, Anjali, Kalki Koechlin, Prakash Raj, Sai Pallavi, Jaffer Sadiq
Paava Kadhaigal directors: Sudha Kongara, Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivan, Vetrimaaran
Paava Kadhaigal rating: Two and a half stars

A woman’s body has long been the site of ‘honour’— her own, her family’s, and very often, the community’s. This theme is explored in different ways through the four-part Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal, but each one comes down to the eternal questions of identity and self-hood, in which honour and shame, sin and betrayal, are entwined.

Set in an earlier era, the first segment is about a young man who has always known he is different, and who has learnt to live with it. Hiding is not an option, so he flaunts it. He chews betel leaf to colour his lips red, is coy with a best male friend, and is the object of derision of the people in his village. When the friend professes love for another, he has to choose between him, and a dream he has lived with for a long time. Or is it really a choice? Does a ‘man’ like him, rebuffed by family, ever have a choice? Kongara’s short is pitched high, but is also a vivid portrayal of difference, of extreme intolerance of that difference, and its tragic outcome.

Difference, driven by caste and class, crops up in Kalki Koechlin-Anjali’s story. A pair of twin sisters in love with people their heavy-handed father wouldn’t approve of, are up against a wall: how do they escape the web of danger that’s been woven for them? A lesbian angle, clunkily thrown in, is one way out for one sister; the other has a darker fate in store. The third segment, directed by Menon, also features him as a father of two girls, struggling against vicious gossip surrounding the younger one. The mother, played by Simran, is distraught, knowing full well what it is to live with the permanent ‘shame’ of rape, the culprit getting away with it, and the victim being blamed.

Vetrimaaran’s segment, the final one, features a pregnant young woman being invited back to the bosom of her estranged family for a baby shower. Prakash Raj and Sai Pallavi, as father and daughter, bob and weave around each other, the former in a dour, all-is-forgiven mode, the other delighted to be welcomed back. But of course, nothing is as it seems, and we are confronted with the ugly face of bigotry and classism.

Watching this, you feel a mix of emotions. On top is the sinking feeling which accompanies violence against women, whether it is tacit or in your face. There’s also a kind of weariness. How long will this brutal entitlement to women’s bodies and minds go on, in life and on screen? Some of the violence on display, stretched too far, is hard to watch. Redemption does come in two of the four segments, but at the cost of subtlety. A few subtle grace notes may have been more effective, overall.

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