Some spoilers below – you have been cautioned.
In one of the scenes in Paava Kadhaigal’s episode ‘Or Iravu’ directed by Vetrimaaran, where Prakash Raj and Sai Pallavi are seated in the latter’s home and talking, on the wall behind them, there is a photo of Sai Pallavi and her husband with the Northern Lights in the sky.
In Vignesh Shivan’s ‘Love Panna Uttranum’, the final scene is a clumsy text screen at the end of the episode that says that the otherwise cruel father goes to France with his remaining daughter and learns to rap from his son-in-law.
In Sudha Kongara’s Thangam, Shantanu and Bhavani escape to the town and live peacefully there.
The connecting thread in all this is the outside world that exists beyond the confines of the narrow-minded people in their respective villages where caste, creed or such superficial differences aren’t pressing concerns to anyone. The farther they go, the lesser such pointless problems.
Sai Pallavi and her husband seem to be doing very well for themselves in what seems to be Bengaluru city until a remnant from their village appears in the form of her father, to remind them of the painful lives they were leading before. Just like Anjali and Kalki who were perfectly peaceful away from the former’s village.
This is a nice, indirect hat doff to the overview effect, a cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts during space-flight while viewing the Earth from outer space. They realize how tiny and insignificant our day-to-day problems and constructs are, like geography, religion, caste, creed, and other such divisions we create in our own minds and grow it inside us to a massive size, making them to everything in our lives.
But, in all 3 instances, the characters are forced to return to the scene of their earlier problems for assorted reasons. And then they find the problems spiral out of hand again.
These 3 stories are also the ones where people who are very close to the protagonists and are fully trusted by them (fathers, in particular) behave most irrationally, or cruelly.
The 4th episode, ‘Vaanmagal’, by Gautham Menon, is the exception – the characters stay where they are, suffering the consequences of that lack of exposure to the larger world, and the trusted character does a gravely terribly thing only in their thought, not in reality.
The perils that people are put through in all 4 episodes are so very raw, immediate, and affecting. The effect is like watching the most unnerving portion of a mainstream movie 4 times, back to back! For instance, like sitting through the climax of Paruthiveeran 4 times in one go!
And each time it happens—and you are sure that bad/terrible things are going to happen to good, normal and sane people with consistency—it jolts you because you tend to look at how different things could have been if only the perpetrators simply minded their own lives instead of insisting that everyone live through some invisible code of honor, and they take it upon themselves to be the enforcer of the code. This they do for assorted reasons, of course – in Sudha Kongara’s segment, it is because the supposedly straying character is a son, in Vignesh and Vertimaaran’s segments, it is the daughter. Only in Gautham’s segment does this template break and the harrowing incident happens to a child.
In terms of characterization, it was so, so, so very refreshing to see actors who would have otherwise been constrained to play one or more templates in the name of characters in mainstream, theatrical cinema, break the flow and play something completely different, with so much honesty.
Kalidas Jairam brings so much dignity and credibility to the way he plays the transgender coming to terms with how difficult it is to be himself/herself in that claustrophobic village. Even Shantanu, saddled with a smaller role, does significantly better than his film roles that demand that he play as per some version of a conventional hero.
Sai Pallavi has always been a powerhouse, but in her final moments in Vetrimaaran’s segment, as her voice wobbles and she becomes unintelligible, her fear grips us viscerally even as we watch Prakash Raj in absolute horror, hoping he would come to his damn sense soon… though he doesn’t, or controls his urge to become sane so well.
You expect the same from the otherwise stoic Padam Kumar, playing Anjali’s father and sitting through her death being staged in the background by a remarkably cast Jaffer Sadiq playing Narikutty to deadly impact, despite the dark humor underlying this segment. But Padam Kumar doesn’t budge either.
Gautham’s limited range really impedes his character’s showcase in Vaanmagal, though Simran seems to be making up for him and goes beyond her film roles in demonstrating a mother’s helplessness when confronted with a horror of such intense proportions.
Paava Kadhaigal is a stunning, deeply disturbing watch. In a way, you need to consciously subject yourself to such grave injustices that unfold in front of your eyes knowing fully well what is going to happen. This is a tough call and a difficult watch. But it is a must-watch too. The anthology is proof that when familiar filmmakers break the template mandated by mainstream, theatrical cinema’s 2-2.5 hours and story-telling contrivances forced by audience segmentation, they can untether their own imagination to new, soaring heights. It’s a pity that their characters are not able to untether themselves from difficult situations, though – and this says a lot about the kind of world they, and we, live in.