Four films, four tales of "sin" and four tales of redemption (or not). Paava Kadhaigal, the Netflix anthology directed by Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Vasudev Menon and Vetri Maaran, is a difficult anthology to classify, because amid that stomach-churning sense of dread, you still sneak a smile.
In this conversation with Firstpost, the directors speak about the "liberation" they felt in this format, going against the grain, sticking to certain motifs, and more.
Vignesh Shivan and Vetri Maaran
Did the anthology format allow you to explore a facet that you and the world were not aware of? Did it free you up as filmmakers?
Vetri Maaran: I won't say we did not know that side, I'd say it was a side we did not have the courage to explore, may be. In the mainstream framework, there are a lot of restrictions while making a film. When we got the chance to tell a story in the anthology format, we felt we should stay away from what we normally do, and choose something that would express the concern we have about what's happening in the world around us. It was, in a sense, liberating.
Till I worked on this, I never realised that when shooting a film, there's alway some unseen pressure, like someone is pressing down your shoulder. I felt light here. I knew I could shoot it the way I wanted to, do what felt right to me. It gave me great freedom. Plus, I've entered this 'short' space many years after I worked on Kadhai Neram [his mentor Balu Mahendra's short story series on television in the year 2000], and it felt good.
Gautham Vasudev Menon: This is a side I've always wanted to explore, and this time around, I did with the content and the milieu. I moved away from what I normally do, from cities to a small town. I think people will soon know how I feel about things other than the city [The filmmaker is known for his A-centre films, and love for the city and coffeeshops]. I felt this freedom even when making Queen [on MX Player, starring Ramya Krishnan].
Sudha Kongara: It's nice to not watch over your shoulder, or play to the gallery, or work in a particular way for a particular audience. That was liberating.
Vignesh Shivan: I'm yet to explore much even within mainstream cinema, this is just the beginning and I'm delighted I got this anthology early on. There was a lot of freedom. This is a sensitive topic, and while I have read about these issues and seen them in films, I've not seen it in my everyday life. When I researched for the film, it was breaking to know the reality. So, my target was to make an interesting film, because the subject could not be "entertaining". I enjoyed the process.
Did you coordinate on the stories you had chosen? A still in the third short hints at the fourth. Did you actively seek to introduce linkages?
Vetri Maaran: Gautham was the last to shoot, so he knew what the rest of us had done. Initially, we did consider the idea of a connecting link, but Netflix felt they could be unconnected too. We did not explore it further. But, Gautham felt that shot strengthened his story, and it worked very well.
Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj in Vetri Maaran's Oor Iravu
Vetri, how did you zero in on your actors? They are not very familiar faces from your universe¦
A father and daughter on both sides of a window, and a conversation. That was the entire film in my head, and then I fleshed it out.
I'd worked with Prakash Raj in Asuran, and during our interactions, I realised that he has a big heart, is a bigger person than we see on screen. I needed a caring father who moves to the other end of the spectrum. I felt he could do the shift easily. Also, I wanted someone whose face could tell you what's on his mind. That comes easily to him.
I saw Premam while making Asuran, and felt Sai Pallavi could do 'loving vulnerable' very well. Hari played a small part in Vada Chennai and I felt he would perfectly play a person who's not very imposing, is always there for the girl and will ensure he will fight for justice for his love. When you see him, you know he does not come from a typical patriarchal world. He's not misogynistic and has broken the mould. The sisters are from Asuran too, and the mother had a strong contribution to make.
Gautham Menon in his short Vaanmagal
Gautham, your film, despite the grimness of the situation, has flashes of a middle-age lived-in romance, and the deep parent-child bond. Is that going to be a motif in your films, irrespective of the format? And, there's the chemistry between Simran and you.
I have to see what Simran says to this, how appreciative she will be (laughs). I actually toned down the romance to a great extent. In a feature, I would have liked to establish their bond. The few fleeting moments came through because of Simran and how she pulls off every moment. She gave me the confidence to perform. What you see in the film are the second and third takes, after a very uncomfortable first take. Her assurance is the reason it shaped up well. We had planned these as small moments.
Sudha Kongara and Gautham Vasudev Menon
So, are we going to see more of Gautham the actor?
Yes. Yes. I am saying this with confidence because there are three other directors here. I hope Vetri will call me for one of his stark films, Sudha will call me for one of her beautiful films. I loved what she created with Jayaram and Urvashi [Putham Pudhu Kaalai on Amazon Prime Video], and I hope Vicky will call me for one of his quirky tales. I sound like I am pitching, but I don't mind (laughs).
Your films usually breathe, Gautham. So did you have to rein yourself in because of the shorter format?
Not really, for within the format, there is a lot of breathing. There were a couple of more moments I could not retain. I did hold on to some moments, not languid exactly, but longer than I would have in a feature.
Sudha, your film is all about unrequited love, grace and dignity. The film has a very empathetic tone. How easily did that come about, considering your film speaks about something we don't see often on screen?
It was not easy, that's for sure. It is a world I have seen from a great distance. Years ago, when I would travel to Bombay or take an auto and when a transperson approached me, I would get scared due to my social conditioning over decades. This film and the process of making it changed me. I went to the Palani temple after shooting, and when a transperson blessed me, I was moved. I had changed. I quite understood their journey.
Still from Thangam in Paava Kadhaigal by Sudha Kongara
Is the empathy also because you had transpersons on board as consultants?
Yes. As a woman, you are sometimes or most times, oppressed and suppressed. But, here, you have an entire set of people who are suppressed and mocked at all the time. Transwomen Nadia Banu and Jeeva were on sets, training actors, consulting and they watched the films as well. LGBTQ activist Malini read the script and watched the film.
When the late Karunanidhi was chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he started the Transgender Welfare Board, the first in India, and called them 'Thirunangai', a respectful term. Now, that's been revoked and they've gone back to being referred to as 'Moondram paalinathavar' (third gender). Who is the first, who is the second and why are we the third, they ask. Are we cattle? Listen to their voices. Even those from privileged educated households face a certain antipathy.
I think a certain bit of the empathy in the film comes from my sensitivity with people at large. I've seen many in unequal relationships, where they give a lot and get back very less. I transferred that to my characters. That parallel helped me understand their universe better.
Vignesh, your film has the delicious twists and the dark humour one has come to almost expect from your films. How did you weave that into a story that is serious in nature?
You think it worked? Great. That was the aim, to be sensitive to the topic on hand, but also handle it with a lightness. I did not want to turn it into a joke. I approached the story in my style, scene by scene. I did discuss it with some friends, and director Mari Selvaraj told me that I could even try exploring a slightly raw style of filmmaking, something I normally don't do. I wanted to write and see if my style works. It did, for me. While shooting, I felt I could balance the heaviness and the lightheartedness, that we could pull it off.
We knew something sad had happened, but still managed to smile... I wanted to see if I could get the audience to smile even after a soga sambavam (sad happening). Can the writing nudge the audience to laugh and cry when I want them to? It worked, I think.