- Golden Globe Awards
Through its simplicity, India’s Pebbles makes more impact than any loud big-budget film with its strong messages of resilience, survival, female emotional strength, appreciation of the simple joys in grinding poverty and the maturity of children.
The debut feature film of writer-director P.S. Vinothraj, a filmmaker who hails from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Pebbles tells the story of an abusive, alcoholic father, Ganapathy (portrayed by Karutthadaiyaan), who drags his young son Velu (Chellapandi) out of school and embarks on a journey to bring back his wife who left him after a night of abuse.
Upon reaching his in-laws’ house, he learns that his wife has already left to return to their home. In his frustration, he gets involved in a brawl with his in-laws, earning further disapproval from his son. The young boy acts out his frustration by tearing up the bus fare into bits. This leaves the duo with no choice but to walk back home barefoot in the barren rural land where the unforgiving sun makes them confront their emotions.
On their journey home, they pass women barbecuing rats and preparing them like they were making a feast for dinner. A woman patiently getting muddy water from a well while a line of seated men and women quietly sit and wait for their turn is another jolting image to the audiences who take for granted drinking sparkling bottled water or just regular filtered clean water.
There are scenes of women simply enjoying the hot summer day or a little girl playing with leaves or pebbles. Their smiles are precious. Their simple joys are treasures.
The nurturing nature of women assuages the hunger and anger of men, and this vicious cycle of love and hate is bound to repeat itself.
Karutthadaiyaan, who plays the father in the film, is a poet and a theater artist. He was a prominent actor in the post-modernistic theater troupe from Tamil Nadu, Manal Magudi. Though he has performed in hundreds of stage plays, Koozhangal (Pebbles) is his debut feature film.
Chellapandi, who portrays the son, has no acting experience and was selected for the film after auditioning with about 80 kids from nearby villages. He was chosen to play the part because it mirrors his real-life to a large extent. He hails from a nearby village in Madurai, Tamil Nadu where the film was shot. Pebbles is his debut feature film.
All the other actors in the film were also not professional actors but were simply people who resided in the nearby villages. It is their first acting experience in any form.
Shot in only 37 days on a very limited budget, the filming was done around the villages of a town called Melur, which is 25 kilometers away from Madurai.
Director P. S. Vinothraj insisted that the film be shot during the peak summer month of May when the temperature was between 40 to 42 degrees Celsius (around 107.6 Fahrenheit) to show the father and son’s long trek under the scorching sun in a barren land.
The director and the cinematographers of the film spent about six months together in this terrain before commencing the shoot.
Director P. S. Vinothraj, who dropped out of school at an early age owing to poverty, worked as a child laborer at the age of eight and then at a textile factory in Tiruppur until he turned 19. It was when he found a job selling DVDs at a roadside shop in Chennai that he learned to appreciate films by watching all the movies that he could watch even if he did not understand English.
Soon, he was introduced to a few people from the Tamil film industry and eventually became an assistant director to Mr. Sargunam, a Tamil filmmaker, with whom he worked for almost four years on two film projects.
He then worked as an assistant director for Manal Magudi, a post-modernistic theater troupe established by Muruga Boopathy in Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu. It was here that he tried his hand at shooting a few short films.
Koozhangal (Pebbles) is inspired by his personal life. The film had its world premiere in the Tiger Competition category at the 50th International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2021 and went on to win the most coveted Tiger Award with high praise from jury members and critics.
P.S. Vinothraj described his inspiration for Pebbles in the film’s production notes: “I heard my sister recount a laborious walk, through forsaken paths in the savage sun, when chased away by her husband. It left a lasting impression on me as I realized that this is a story common to many families of my hometown, Aritappati. This is a forgotten dry strip of land down south in Tamil Nadu, isolated from any major income source.
“The people of this land are irascible, feisty, and spew spirited abuses at each other. At the same time, there’s a sprinkling of love and a touch of moisture, ditched by the sun.
“On this dreary soil, the patience of women is the only thing that keeps the family from falling apart. I felt compelled to capture these slices of reality in this film.”