Though the recently released Netflix film, Paava Kadhaigal has garnered much positive criticism in light of its bold and satirical portrayal of the LGBTQIAP+ community, there are problems. This article isn’t as much a review of a show that could have been a lot better on a lot of different counts, as much as it is a criticism of a society that seeks to laud it, for all the wrong reasons. Take for instance in the second episode, Love Panna Utranam, a character justifies her lesbianism by saying she wasn’t allowed to talk to boys when she was younger, so she turned to girls instead, which is extremely flawed in that respect alone. While the ending scenes might have left us all confused as to whether she even belonged to the community or not, the show becomes a satire, presenting the episode to us like a Tarantino film, which isn’t necessarily the right kind of portrayal when a movie is trying to be honest and support the rights of the persecuted. While I might write critically about the entire show as a whole in future articles, this one is tuned toward the first episode of the show, Thangam, contrasted against the portrayal of trans men and women in Indian cinema.
First, let us try to look at the kind of story chosen, along with certain normative factors taken into consideration in terms of the critical analysis of chosen cinematic format.
When anybody sits down to write a story, they most usually have three paths available to them – stories that get gruesome, gory and dark; stories that are moderate in their extremisms; and stories with happy endings. Writing a moderate story wouldn’t necessarily make the big bucks, unless the quality of the art made is such that it can evoke that kind of emotion, but effectuating a balancing of what actually goes on in society, this is probably the story closest to accuracy. Writing a happy ending story, in the hands of less than adequate writers would rely on a lot of hyperbole, as would a story with a sad ending. Thangam falls somewhere in between. The dialogue tears us into pieces, and a scene before actual violence is left to the viewer’s imagination, but it is, at the end of the day, a highly dramatised portrayal of a mix of various issues, presented to an audience as a consecrated whole.
There is absolutely no doubt as to the fact that the show is superb – in terms of dialogue, in terms of plot and in terms of shooting cinema. But of the three stories I lay out at the top, this one relies on a more darker and harsher plot. It draws from religious divisions, ostracism of the transgender community and a broken unachievable Love. In order to not spoil the show for y’all, I won’t necessarily let you know if it ended well or it didn’t but it most definitely isn’t a story that you’d like to watch after a long day at work.
It’s hard to digest, it curdles your insides and it leaves you thinking, rolling around in your bed at night.
At the core, it is a story of violence shown by society towards a transgender person, which is, in and of itself, problematic. This also leads to a bunch of problems which I’ll discuss a little later.
I don’t believe that the show wasn’t made well. Heck, David Fincher’s The Social Network was also very well made but it’s been criticised for being highly factually inaccurate. While I wouldn’t necessarily state directly that this one wasn’t factually accurate, I’ll simply tell you why I thought it isn’t necessarily reliable an account, and shouldn’t be lauded the way it has.
Everybody tweeting about the show, are screaming about the bold and powerful social criticism the show provides. This is where I believe we must stop and think twice. The only social criticism we’re able to garner from an episode made this way is that a) transgender peeps have a raw deal and b) interior and rural society just wants to kill everybody they don’t like.
Here’s where I segue into the second half of the review. Keep in mind the two broad themes explored emotionally in this episode, which I’m about to try and dissect, both in terms of what it means culturally, as well as what it means socio-politically.
While an interview of Kalidas Jayaram expresses that transgender people were kept in the loop, and “were in tears at how relatable the struggles (were),” it is, at the end of the day, a portrayal of the community by a cis-het-male. While it is possible to understand the kind of struggles the community faces from the outset, it is not at all possible to comprehend the very nature of the struggles. Additionally, existing cinema from the past has already created a visual stereotype of the community that has been criticised for how flawed it is, and a cis-het-male would inevitably have been exposed to these sources, which is why I believe that it is not possible for the portrayal to be accurate.
There do exist actors today that belong to the community, and if the show really cared about the problems they face, the least they could have done was to guarantee adequate representation. So while the show seemingly leaves the audience sympathising with Sathaar and seeing the troubles faced by her, it wouldn’t be reliable until the day someone from the community gave the world a cinematic performance to that tune. I wouldn’t be quick to label this an accurate portrayal, however amazing the acting might be.
Furthermore, as I’ve iterated earlier, this portrayal was a violent one. A particular source I found during my research, discussed the potential harms arising out of the violent portrayal of trans people. According to the study, it is considered important for society to view the community as being no different from the rest of the same society. While there already exists enough cinematic literature that shows trans women being raped and beaten up by a mob of people, it’s more important to show the community in situations like driving a car, having normal relationships, meeting normal people, working daily jobs, etc. Showing a constant string of violence affects how young transgender people view themselves, and also how the rest of society views them. So even if the portrayal was an accurate one, it isn’t really doing much to help the community itself.
Similar criticisms apply to the second issue of honour killings as well. While cases such as Shakti Vahini, various documentaries about the issue along with the level of media coverage given to the problem, it’s become a fact of society that people in remote areas would react in the manner as shown in the film. So, even assuming this is an accurate portrayal, it’s simply a narrative that we’re already aware of that exists, that once again reinforces stereotypes of village life to the otherwise upper middle class Netflix crowd that is going to be sitting down and streaming the show. The episode doesn’t bring anything new to the table in that regard as well. So rather than social criticism, the show is simply a clickbait ode to extreme violence and despair in settings far removed from the very society that shall view the show.
I encourage you to laud the episode for being cinematically and artistically well rounded, but don’t be too quick to call it a powerful portrayal of society, because as I’ve shown across this article, it doesn’t really do much on that count. Cinema needs to help a bigoted society relate to the community’s struggles, and that is the only way we’d be able to embrace them the way we must.
Samarth Narayanan is a Bengaluru based law student with a love and passion for writing, Samarth gets his drive from a quote by his favourite music artist, Kendrick Lamar who once said, “I’m not on the outside looking in, I’m not on the inside looking out. I’m in the dead centre, looking around.” Steve Jobs being an important inspiration to his life, he is a law student with a creative streak, who is a stickler for perfection. A self-respecting feminist, who believes in human rights in a social democracy, he is one of the founders, as well as the chief editor of BLS. Samarth is also an avid reader and constantly expresses an innate greed to own books. He also hopes to change the world someday. He listens to a lot of music, writes poetry and bits of prose that can be found on his personal blog Escape The Abyss and his Instagram handle @bard_of_suburbia.
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