Caution: Spoilers ahead.

The Tamil-language anthology film Paava Kadhaigal revolves around “honour, love, sin, and pride,” according to the official synopsis. Sudha Kongara’s Thangam is set in rural Tamil Nadu in the 1980s and follows transwoman Sathaar (Kalidas Jayaram), who sacrifices her love for Saravanan (Shantnu Bhagyaraj) .

In Vetri Maaran’s Oor Iravu, a man drags his daughter through a slow death for having married a lower-caste man. The film stars Prakash Raj as the father, Sai Pallavi as the daughter, and Hari as the husband. Kangara and Vetri Maaran spoke to about their respective creations and how these films tie in with their larger body of work.

Sudha Kongara on ‘Thangam’

“I came across the script [by Shan Karuppusamy] and began sobbing. I read it at four am before leaving to shoot Soorarai Pottru. There’s the part where Saravanan hugs Sathaar, asks him to stop chewing betel lips and gives him a lipstick and tells him use this to look like Hindi film heroines, who were a big deal in rural Tamil Nadu in the ’80s, them being fair and beautiful. In the end, Saravanan finds that lipstick neatly wrapped. That moved me.

Sathaar was based on a person my writer knew. He was a student in Coimbatore. Whenever he would return home, this transperson would hang around him. He knew she liked him, and they spoke when no one was around, but he ignored her in front of others. My writer said he wrote it out of this guilt. This person, he says, eventually disappeared.

I too was guilty. Whenever I would go to Bombay and see transpersons approach me while I was in an auto, I would get scared. While working on this film, I delved deep into the subject and connected with the marginalisation I faced in my career.

Thangam, Paava Kadhaigal.

When I was working with Mani Ratnam, one thing he told me was that when the core of a film is simple and commercial, you can experiment with the narrative, make it non-linear and so on. But if the core itself is hard to grasp for a regular audience, you have to keep the storytelling simple. That’s what I did with Irudhi Suttru, Soorarai Pottru and Paava Kadhaigal.

In Paava Kadhaigal, I introduce songs because I love to crunch time with a song and take the story forward. Likewise for Soorarai Pottru, a movie on aviation, or Irudhi Suttru, about women’s boxing. I remember people were discouraging us, saying this cannot be a Tamil film, but perhaps a Hindi film. During the release, they asked my producer if he has a share in the Hindi version because the Tamil one will tank. But they did not know I was super-sharp to work out the beats of the film to ensure the story reaches the masses. Because I am the masses. I love mainstream filmmaking.

Sudha Kongara. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I guess I am high energy, which is why my films are the way they are. I really liked Sathaar, for example, who has immense optimism and has her life worked out. I would also like to believe Sathaar got that courage to commit to surgery, something radical in the ’80s, because of the love Saravanan gave her.

A support system is very necessary in life. I would be nothing without Mani sir or Maddy [R Madhavan], who stood by my side when we faced great difficulties mounting Irudhi Suttru. His character is based on the wonderfully feminist men I have met in life.

In Soorarai Pottru, when the hero’s friends tell him to take the easy way out and sell the airline, his wife tells him that she will drink poison if he ever does that. She is just as mad as him. I find that dynamic very exciting.

I am really inquisitive about man-woman relationships in particular, because that’s the most primal and primary equation in the world. Men and women are so vividly different, intriguing, and tough. And I always had the angst about women not being represented properly in film. I try to change that in my own little ways. I ensure all my films pass the Bechdel test, for example.

Kaattu Payale, Soorarai Pottru.

And I like underdogs a lot, given, again, my experience in the film industry. That perhaps explains my films.

I understand why people keep asking how I make macho films being a woman. The question means: when you have not lived a particular life, how will you represent it?

I feel that being sensitive, we have become artists. If I am not able to understand a boxer, a trans woman, an ambitious son of a schoolteacher with mad dreams, if I cannot comprehend what is not me, I am no artist. Then I should only make films about women like many men only make films on men.

Men can also write wonderful female characters, like Priyamani’s character in Paruthiveeran, the heroine in Pelli Choopulu, Mahendran sir and Mani sir’s women. If the male gaze can be sensitive, it’s the same for the female gaze. You need to research and work hard to get stories that are not yours right.

I wanted to cast a transperson but couldn’t find the right performer for lack of time so what I could do was put my actors into as realistic an environment as possible. The film is what it is because of the transwomen who helped us with its making. They taught my actors little gestures, taught them how to talk, ensured the cuss words did not refer to women but men. Their questions made me ashamed. I gave a little, but they gave so much to my film.”

Vetri Maaran on ‘Oor Iravu’

“I had a visual in mind, which inspired the story. A girl locked in a room, the father outside. They are conversing through the window. She asks her father, how can you live with having killed your daughter?

What bothered me was the thought that someone who had invested the last 25 years of their life in their child and wished them well, would choose to kill their child simply because they exercised their own will. I wanted to give a microscopic view of a person committing that crime, of a person for whom love is lesser than honour for caste. So the last scene was extending time on film. I wanted people who believe in pride and honour, in quotes, to see this.

The cruelty of this scene definitely moved me. So many things happen in the newspapers daily, and we just push them aside and move on. I thought I should witness this pain, go through it, so perhaps some change could happen in the real world.

Oor Iravu, Paava Kadhaigal.

I agree that the protagonist is unable to fight back unlike they did in my previous films, but I am not glorifying violence or using it as a tool of escapism or as a means to quench the thirst and feed the unrest of the audience. I feel as long as I am not doing these things, the violence is justified.

I remember someone had called Visaranai torture porn. All the violence that’s in there or here, in my view, makes the viewer angry at the system and the person dragging the characters through that pain. It raises questions. With violence perpetrated on the voiceless, I want to disturb the viewer into asking questions. My intention is definitely not to be exploitative. If it comes across that way, I will have to reconsider and rework my cinema.

Vetri Maaran. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The protagonist could not fight back because that fighting aspect is dispatched to the husband from the beginning. He knows he cannot trust his father-in-law, so he demands a neutral ground for the function. He is so nervous to have left his wife there, so he keeps checking on her. Husbands and lovers like him won’t let this go unquestioned. In the final reel, you see he finds legal setbacks, because today’s system favours people like the father-in-law. But the boy has started a journey and he will hopefully get there.

To give the husband more room in the story was the idea of [Pariyerum Perumal director] Mari Selvaraj. He and [filmmaker] Ameer and others gave a lot of feedback which I used in the movie, which is why I have thanked them in the credits.

Visaranai (2015).

When I showed the early cut to Mari Selvaraj, he said there’s no space for the husband here. Mari said the husband should be the one making decisions, where his voice is, he should be seen as being accepted by the family and community as the son-in-law even if the father has problems, he should see what the father-in-law has done in the end.

Without the husband’s intervention, whatever reasons the protagonist’s father gives makes him look justified. A man will say such things like, I had to do it for the kids, to rationalise his crime but we can’t let that pass. Mari asked me to incorporate the legal system into the final act, so we can see the case moving through courts, and how the husband tirelessly ensures that he is put behind bars.

And yes, early in the film, when the protagonist tells her father in their city apartment that she escaped her home having seen what had happened to someone else who had married outside her caste, the cut away to the husband juicing fruits was deliberate.”

(As told to Devarsi Ghosh).