Cinema is widely categorized into two varieties the entertaining cinema and thinking cinema. But then some movies do not get strictly categorized into either slot, Paava Kadhaigal, on Netflix is a quartet comprising of four short films that could be categorized as the kind of cinema which definitely makes you think but at the same time makes you squirm at the harshness with which each of the four stories brings to fore the reality of society’s notion of honor highlighting how each time it is women who have to pay a heavy price to protect the society’s defined standards of familial honor.
The first short film of the quartet titled “Thangam” directed by Sudha Kongara is the story from the perspective of Sathar a transgender man. The story set is set in the early 1980s but as the story proceeds and you see Sathar’s struggle for basic respect and him being abused verbally and physically by his own family for the person he is for they consider him to be sullying their honor, it makes you wonder what has changed in the last four decades. We are on the threshold of 2021 but this tale set in the 1980s resonates with the present, which isn’t how it should have been. The story further progresses and you have an interfaith couple, who choose to elope to save themselves from the wrath of their families and it is Sathar who helps them flee. The story poignantly captures how the rage to save the family honor induces the family of the couple to bay for their blood and it is this same family honor that leads to the death of Sathar. The sad truth our society values honor and validation above human life. Sathar did not fit the definition of masculinity framed by society, he was effeminate who lined his eyes with kohl, darkened his lips with betel juice, and was comfortable in his skin and with his identity. But the society is unable to accept him and let him live a life of dignity for he did not fit their description of normalcy, hence Sathar is branded as a dishonor to his family. The painful truth is even in 2021 not much has changed.
The second story of the anthology “Love Panna Uttranum” directed by Vignesh Shivan portrays a father who places his position in the community, power, and the supposed respect he commands above his daughter’s wishes or dreams. Though a man who momentarily decides to accede to his daughter’s wishes to marry the man she loves, it doesn’t take much for his minion to convince him to change his decision and he doesn’t flinch in tricking his own daughter into believing him and murdering her. But this particular story treated as dark humor ends on an unconvincing note. While the father is again upset about the sully on his family honor when his second daughter reveals she is in a relationship with her female friend, but he does not stop her from leaving when she tells him she does not want to meet her twin’s fate. But to paint the happily ever after ending, you see a note at the end where we are told the father moved in with his daughter and is learning the art of rapping from her boyfriend. It is difficult to accept that a woman who was distraught at her sister’s death decided to forgive her murderer and accept him. Can a person’s intent o reform wash the blood off his hands?
“Vaanmagal” directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon has several elements that plenty of women in the country would find extremely relatable. You have a mother who tells her daughter that now that she has attained puberty, she must behave like a woman. She tells her to be in the designated corner during those days of the month and not end up making her wash the rest of the house. This might come as a shock and some might even ask “does this happen in today’s day and age?” Sadly, it happens more often than we can imagine and sadly in families that proclaim to be educated. Though it makes your blood boil when the same mother is adamant about not reporting sexual abuse her 12-year-old daughter has been subjected to, it does not surprise you. The mother is more worried about tarnishing the family honor, she believes scrubbing her daughter off all those scars on her body will put everything right. But can you blame the lady here, it is years of internalized patriarchy that shape her decisions. She wishes well for her daughter, for she has been made to believe that a woman’s honor resides in her vagina, she is the part of the same society that would blame a victim and question a woman’s character rather than take the rapist to charge. While there have been scores of reviews highlighting the mother’s behavior, I wonder why her husband does not question her decision, why does he fail to stand up for what’s right, and seeks justice for his daughter. Though the couple says it’s not the child’s mistake, but they exclaim with grief “our little girl has now grown up overnight now that she has seen all this.” It is heart-breaking to see how no one spares a thought for the mental state of the child or the emotional trauma, she must be undergoing. Whether or not castrating the perpetrator of the act was justice served is debatable, but society’s hypocrisy and the resultant pressure and suppression of women is summed up in the closing lines of the mother “A family’s honor, its pride, and prestige, are borne by the women at home. In their bodies. Between their legs. In their breasts, and faces, and their words. It is ours alone to bear. And we can never unburden ourselves till the end of life. It is our society, caste and community that decides what ‘honor’ means to us.
The last story of the anthology “Oor Iravu” directed by Vetri Maran is the most gut-wrenching of them all. A father who comes back to visit his estranged daughter, who had eloped to marry her love. He tells her he couldn’t hold himself back when he heard she was pregnant. He tells his son in law; he is angry with his daughter but cannot remain angry with his grandchild. But the same man doesn’t spare a second thought before poisoning his daughter. There is no love or even remorse upon seeing his daughter suffer and scream in pain, he is deaf to even her pleadings. All you hear from him is this was his only way of gaining his lost honor, his lost place in society. I wonder how does the obsession for this supposed honor renders a person inhuman, does it transcend the love for your own family, is societal validation all that important? This man cannot accept the son-in-law who treats his daughter as an equal and cares for her but would murder the very daughter and her unborn child to appease the elder son-in-law who abandons his wife to satiate his hideous prejudices and ego. This is the gory truth of honor killings, which ironically is an act that is anything but honorable.
All four stories are interwoven by a common thread, the society’s notion of honor. Sadly, in a society that has and continues to remain patriarchal and refuses to see beyond the caste and class barriers, this obsession to uphold honour transcends all human emotions and love. It is sadly the women who are penalized in the name of honor, their taking decisions for themselves, planning their lives and voicing their opinions all of it is considered a threat to this supposed honor. In reality, it isn’t honor that is being guarded, it’s patriarchy’s way of keeping the voices that were kept subdued over the years from raising. In the last story when the protagonist Sumathi tells her sisters “if you study well, freedom will come on its own” and her sisters tell her “No, father says that you eloped because education led you astray. So, he forbade us from studying,”. This is what the pressure and obsession to uphold this false notion of honor does, it snatches away the freedom to live, especially from those who want to break the shackles.