Filmmaker PS Vinothraj on his Rotterdam winner Pebbles, the politics of his image-making and his humble beginnings
'I simply wanted to present the lives of people, living in this particular place, which are often ignored or go unnoticed,' says Pebbles writer-director PS Vinothraj.
PS Vinothraj’s debut feature Koozhangal (Pebbles) won the prestigious Tiger Award, the highest honour at the 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Competing against 16 features including Landscapes of Resistance, Looking for Verena, and Black Medusa, Koozhangal is the first Tamil film and second Indian film after Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga (2017) to have won the award.
A vexed father (Ganapathy) is determined to bring back his wife and daughter, who’d fled home to escape his violence. He forces his school-going son to accompany him and together they undertake a 13 km long road journey, into the heart of a drought-borne village in Madurai. Keeping the family at the centre, Pebbles paints a richly detailed picture of a people, robbed of their livelihood, suffering through abject poverty in a village devastated by drought.
The film was inspired by a personal incident in the director’s life, when, castoff by her in-laws, his sister had to make a 20 km long-journey on foot, in an unforgiving terrain, with her baby on her back. “I was upset and disturbed by the incident, and wanted to do something about it. But the more I learnt about the event, the more I realised that my sister’s story was not a one-off scenario. Several women had undergone similar suffering. My film is an attempt at registering their lives.”
Though the film is an ode to her resilience, it features the disturbed relationship between a father and son. “Why did you not base the story around a mother making that long journey with her son?” I ask. “If I had cast a female, the story would have become gender specific. It would have restricted the scope for a wider debate on the film,” he responds. “It was also,” he continues, “arising out of an intent for revenge, a revenge drama where-in the man undergoes a similar ordeal. I thought, “why should the woman have to make that backbreaking walk all the time, what if the man walked instead?””
Vinothraj’s uneasiness with easy-labels, essentialist narratives and binaries is clear to see in the film. Not a word is uttered on the character’s caste, their marginalised state, or the injustice of their circumstances, still, the politics of the filmmaker is thoroughly comprehensible to the viewer. Pebbles achieves this through its masterfully written and meticulously executed screenplay. A single carriageway road connects a village to another. A bus runs on that cemented road. On the side of a road is a large field with leafless vegetation. It is a poor family’s site for subsistence. An old grandmother is catching rats from an underground burrow. We are shown not only the process of the catch, but also the roasting of the rat, and the ultimate compassion of the young granddaughter, offering a piece of the roasted rat to the tired travellers as innocently as she were offering a sweet. An old woman is drawing out groundwater from a scanty puddle. She is slowly taking out one mug after another and we know it’s going to take a while. We’re watching her, thinking it’s a one-off situation, an extreme poverty-stricken woman’s plight. Next thing we see, the camera zooms out into a wide-shot and half a dozen women are waiting in queue to fill their pots. Not a word is said, and the drought-borne suffering of the entire village become glaring.
To a Hindi cinema viewer, like myself, the absence of dialogue in a film is staggering. When a camera turns to an actor’s face, we expect them to talk, to each other, and simultaneously address us. In mainstream cinema, especially, we are accustomed to watching actors explain/describe even the most basic details in a scene. A hero will point to his bicycle and say, “Come, sit on my bicycle,” when he can avoid saying “my bicycle”, altogether (as the viewer can already see it) and simply say, “Come, sit.” 1
Then, there are films with a “social message”, where dialogue often assumes the role of (moral) commentary. Pebbles defies exposition on both grounds. “I strongly believe that a film is first and foremost a visual medium. Why use dialogue when image can convey the story?” remarks Vinothraj. But there are varieties to a visual approach. Tamil cinema, in particular, is known for its strong and rambunctious visual action, charged with fierce political imagery. In Pebbles, on the other hand, the visual presentation, though equally awe-inspiring, daring and contemplative, is subtle, and understated.
“What informs this sensibility?” I am curious to know. “In 2017, I came in touch with S Murugaboopathy, acclaimed theatre director of Manal Magudi (Rhythms of Land) a post-modernist theatre based out of Tamil Nadu. I worked and travelled with them for a year. We had one-hour long plays, with no dialogue, entirely conveyed through the artist’s body language and facial expressions. It was exhilarating to watch, and I wanted incorporate that vitality into the medium of cinema.” Karuththadaiyaan, the actor who plays the lead role of the father was also a part of the same troupe, and Vinothraj was mightily impressed by him. After finishing the script, the director had approached him for the role, however, due to no prior film experience, Karuththadaiyaan was initially hesitant to accept it.
On the subject of disseminating social messaging in a film, the director stands firm. “I do not want to spoon-feed the audience. Nor did I set out to give any message to the audience, through my film. I don’t think that is the job of a filmmaker,” he asserts. “I simply wanted to present the lives of people, living in this particular place, which are often ignored or go unnoticed.” For him, the life of the characters, was not removed from the life he had seen around him. This affective distance informs the politics of his image-making. The gaze is neither one of pity, nor indifference. He, rather, expresses his solidarity through a sense of documentation and witnessing. In the manner of a mobile camera, we follow the characters as they rail across arid lands, in the same way they as pass-through women’s huts, or stomp into men’s gambling dens. In the process, the director’s intimate knowledge of the landscape emerges marvellously through ardently crafted scenes.
Arittapatti, a village near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, where the film is set in, is an agricultural land that’s turned barren. Hunger and water scarcity is rampant. During summer, the scorching heat can give even the mildest of hearts an affliction. Vinothraj lived in that village for over two years to familiarise himself with every inch of the ecosystem. “Like the father in the film, I used to walk through that landscape every day, meeting people, listening to their stories. During my research, I found that the people in the village were extremely loveable, and extremely aggressive at the same time. I realised that the environment impacted and determined their behaviour to a large extent. So, I began observing the changes in my behaviour too. On some days, I felt agitated, and frustrated, on pleasant mornings, I felt content”.
This is how he wrote the script – through intuition, and a cultivated introspection. The director ensured that his cinematographers, editor as well as the sound engineer stayed in the village for three months, even before the shoot began, spent their time wandering, and walking the terrain like him. “It was essential for the people working on the film to develop a strong connection with the script, understand what exactly the film is about, and the reasons for which it was being made. Their commitment to the project finally made them want to push themselves.” With painstaking precision, the director planned the shot division, the number of frames, the duration of each scene, its staging, the transitions, and so on, way before they began filming. “I strongly believed that the landscape would announce through some sign when it was ready to begin shooting. And once it did, we immediately begun shooting. We had done our homework and were fully prepared when that moment came.” The entire crew shot barefoot, under an unrelenting sun, so that external noises do not disturb their sync sound.
The humility in the film’s production fully translates on screen to its strength. Despite its limited means, and in all of seventy minutes, the film is able to pack a punch that even the fanciest films never manage to achieve. It is perhaps, owning to this elemental structure of the film, that the IFFR Jury rightly described the film as “a lesson in pure cinema.” Like a mystic, Vinothraj works with sheer energies in an environment, making miracles of nothingness. For all its dismal reality, the film is suffused with beauty. To every scene of Ganapathy’s frowned face, there is a balloon fluttering in a bus, the clinking of a baby girl’s anklets, an austere mother tending to her child, a young girl smiling to a stimulated rain shower of dry leaves, and even an adorable puppy playing on the street!
The love and appreciation pouring from across the world, is overwhelming for the director, he tells me. When they submitted a short from the film to the NFDC Film Bazaar, he did not anticipate the film’s destiny. He attributes the success to Ram (whom he calls his mentor), a well-known director in Tamil cinema whose Peranbu (2019) also had its world premier at the IFFR. “Ram sir told us it was the best Tamil film he had ever seen,” we thought he was joking. Ram not only guided the filmmaker on issues of minor editing, but also brought the sound engineer, Yuvan Shankar Raja, as well as the producers – filmmaker Vignesh Sivan, actress Nayanthara and Sai Devanand S – on board. That’s how the project finally took off.
From handing out resumes to directors frequenting the DVD shop he used to work in, to winning the highest honour on an international platform, Vinothraj has come a long way. The journey has been rewarding, and it has only just begun.
1. From a comment on the verbose nature of our films, made by actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui during the session of ‘The Actors Roundtable 2020’ hosted by film critic, Rajeev Masand.
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