Tamil feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) wins the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival

Vinothraj PS speaks on the making of his debut feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) that won the prestigious Tiger award at International Film Festival of Rotterdam, which concluded on Sunday, February 7

Tamil feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) wins the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival
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Namrata Joshi

Koozhangal (Pebbles) is 75 minutes of compelling cinematic choreography in which scorched human bodies waltz with an arid landscape to give us a peep into the treacherousness that life can be for the indigent.

A chronicle of a day in the lives that are devoid of any springs of hope yet teeming with humanity, Vinothraj PS’s debut Tamil feature plays out a human-nature interface of the kind that rarely gets seen in Indian cinema. It won the prestigious Tiger award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam that concluded on February 7.

Arittapatti, near Madurai, where the film is set, has been withered, battered and felled by drought. Nothing grows here, no one flourishes. There is the abject poverty of resources on the one hand and, on the other, human emotions also lack abundance of any kind. In fact, a persistent violence underlines the relationships, as though everything is just waiting to explode.

Tamil feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) wins the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival

Life is at its bleakest. Men have little to do other than play cards, laze around or sleep. Or get into fits of rage and be drawn into ugly fights. Women wait for hours to fill one pot of water from a dirty puddle. Or hunt for rats to roast them for a quick meal. Pups play, ironically, with the soft drink bottle. And children put little pebbles in their mouth, sucking on them to have the dribble substitute the scarce and precious water, a desperate simulation of moisture in the desert. The idea was to make the audience feel the discomfort and face up to all that people have to undergo for basic survival.

Pebbles gives us a bird’s eye-view of a parched world that’s sublime in its unashamed starkness even as Vinothraj jolts you with the many riches that lurk in his cinematic simplicity and bareness. The landscape looms large as a character in its own right. “The terrain, weather, time and the environment determine the behaviour of my lead character Ganapathy. His rage, aggression, irritation, abusiveness,” says Vinothraj.

The image that lingers in the mind is that of the walk of the film’s two protagonists (Karuththadaiyaan and Chellapandi) as the camera follows them closely behind. The aggressive long strides of an entitled and perennially angry Ganapathy and the small, meek steps of his son Velu, trying hard to keep pace with him.

“While writing the script itself I had decided to have the camera in the moment. It moves when they do. It goes static when they stop. I also wanted the audience to feel that they are in that terrain walking along with the two of them,” says Vinothraj.

Tamil feature film Koozhangal (Pebbles) wins the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival

The duo hits the road to get back the wife/mother Shanthi who has left home after an acrimonious quarrel which we only hear of, don’t see. Vinothraj fell back on an incident from his own life for seeking inspiration for this journey that forms the crux of the film.

His own sister was chased away by her husband and had to walk 14 odd kilometres with a two-year-old kid in her arms. It was like taking revenge on his brother-in-law. “Just like me, the son in the film wants to avenge his mother being forced to go away. He makes the father go through the same pain and suffering that his mother would have,” says Vinothraj.

The film’s core is about the father-son relationship. Do you like me or your mother? asks the father while, in another scene, we find Velu inscribing the names of his mother Shanthi, sister Lakshmi and himself on the rocks, deliberately leaving out his dad. It’s his way of protesting against Ganapathy’s deviance.

But then he is also responsible for his father’s inner journey when he tears apart the money for the bus ride leaving Ganapathy with no option but to walk in the heat, a walk that brings him a modicum of perspective, peace, understanding and healing. “He lets go of some of his burdens, the walk transforms him,” says Vinothraj.

Coming from the same area himself, Vinothraj had experienced the reality first-hand. Nonetheless, for the one and a half years that he wrote the script, he walked all over the place and met a diverse set of people for the research that went into the eventual making of it. He shot it over 36 days on location but had to spend eight months before that for training the local people, non-professional actors who have played the various roles.

“We had to make them go through rehearsals to get rid of the fear, to make them feel at home and comfortable in front of the camera. Though they had undergone the same pain for real and could emote naturally, the camera proved to be a big challenge that they needed to overcome,” says Vinothraj. For instance, he auditioned 70 odd kids for the role of Velu and eventually zoomed in on the one who himself came from a dysfunctional family and had to bear the wrath of an abusive father.

Vinothraj himself comes from a modest background and had to drop out of school early in life. However, having witnessed film shoots around Arittapatti he had always been intrigued by the medium. “I had many stories to tell,” he says. That took its own time.

He worked as a labourer in a textile factory for over ten years, sold DVDs by the roadside in Chennai which is when he also got to feast on world cinema—Majid Majidi, Stanley Kubrick in particular. The Indian filmmakers who influenced him deeply include Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham, Satyajit Ray, Balu Mahendra. He worked as assistant director in two films by A. Sagunam before beginning to make his own shorts.

Pebbles featured in the Film Bazaar Recommends section of the NFDC Film Bazaar in 2019. The two people Vinothraj is most thankful to for the film’s present success are his producers—actor Nayanthara and filmmaker Vignesh Shivan. “They believed in the film. They are the reason why the film has got such a lot of exposure worldwide. It’s their guidance and support that has made it happen.”

As a parting shot, I ask him why we don’t see the mother—Shanthi—in focus in the film. “Every woman Velu meets is like his mother. In that sense she is a presence throughout the film. I didn’t want to make it the story about her alone. Most of the women undergo a similar ordeal in life,” he says.

Despite the overall desolateness, there’s some reconciliation to hang on to as things comes a full circle in the film.

Life has to be seized and acknowledged, however tenuously, and one has to keep one’s mouth hydrated with the pebbles even in the middle of the desperate and eternal search for water.

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