It’s no mean achievement for a school dropout and one with no degree in filmmaking to win an international award on debut. Indian director P.S. Vinothraj won the Tiger award at Rotterdam, this February, for his Tamil film, Koozhangal (Pebbles) – the only Indian film selected for the competition. It marked the culmination of several years of struggle and hardship – a journey of grit and determination driven by a passion for cinema. The jury at the Rotterdam festival described it ‘as a lesson in pure cinema.’
Koozhangal placed the plight of the people of Arittapatti, a barely known village of the Madurai district in Tamil Nadu, on the global stage.
The film follows a little boy, Velu, and his alcoholic father, Ganapathy, forced to trek home across 14 kms of desert terrain, exposing the relationship they share. Riding on the shoulders of a team of newcomers, Koozhangal is making waves everywhere it goes. Although it deals with grueling poverty in the searing drought-ridden landscapes of southern India, it succeeded in captivating the jury with its beauty and humor.
The idea for this film originated from Vinothraj’s life after his sister was sent home by her alcoholic husband.
“She walked for 14 kms to reach our home with a baby in her hands,” remembers Vinothraj, “Pebbles grow as a revenge tale – ‘What if my brother-in-law walked the same distance through the difficult terrain?'”
While researching for the story, he realized that many women had gone through something similar to what his sister experienced. Yet, they endured their husband and the poverty for the sake of the children.
Though Vinothraj managed to find a producer for his script, he could only complete 75% of the film. A meeting with national award-winning director, Ram, at the NFDC film bazaar turned the film’s destiny. And, before Vinothraj knew it, actress, Nayanthara, and director, Vignesh Shivan, came on board as producers. Their star power gave the film a wider reach.
Koozhangal capture’s a day in a child’s life. Its strength lies in the terrific performances by the lead pair – Karuththadaiyan as Ganapathy and child actor, Chella Pandi as Velu. Spectacular visuals by cinematographers, Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib, enhance further this story told from the heart. Yuvan Shankar Raja has scored the background music. Karuththadaiyan, a stage actor, was initially not keen and had to be convinced to take on the role. Ultimately, training fresh actors who had never faced the camera was not easy but the efforts paid off.
Vinothraj believes that it is Nature that paved way for his film’s success. As for the title, it is a practice to carry a pebble in the mouth to ward off thirst during a long journey. On theme with this, Velu keeps a pebble in his mouth during the long trek.
Selected in the 50th-anniversary edition of New Directors New Films presented by Film at Lincoln Center, Koozhangal now streams virtually in the USA through May 8. This edition includes filmmakers who represent the present and anticipate the future of cinema, and whose daring work pushes the envelope in unexpected ways.
For tickets, log on to http://newdirectors.org.
Noted American film critic from the New Yorker, Richard Brody calls Koozhangal the best dramatic feature film of this year’s New Directors New Films.
Koozhangal will, also, participate next at the 19th edition of the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles this year. This will be held virtually between May 20-27 featuring forty films including shorts.
It’s been a long haul for Vinothraj whose cinema dreams are rooted in his growing years on film sets. He was fascinated by the cinematographers riding on the trolleys and aspired to become one. Moving to Chennai he learned the ropes of filmmaking while assisting short film directors.
Today, Koozhangal is taking him places with its Asian premiere at the Jeonju International Film festival. The Shanghai International film festival scheduled in June beckons next. And, the road ahead is long for this native of Arittapatti.
Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.