Pebbles (Koozhangal) (Tamil)
Cast: Chellapandi, Karuththadaiyaan
Direction: P.S. Vinothraj
The film will be available online, at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Writer-director P.S. Vinothraj’s Pebbles is a film born out of a trauma that he was witness to. In 2015, his sister's husband threw her out of their house and she walked 13 kms to her mother’s house, carrying her two-year-old child.
Pebbles makes the husband walk and a young boy stalks him, taunting him with his silence and gaze that’s a mix of anger and raging indifference.
P.S. Vinothraj’s debut film, which won the prestigious Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in February this year, is a harsh, relentless, bare-foot trudge through a pale, malnourished land that seems stunned by the complete lack of water. It's dry to the bone and is slowly shedding itself, turning first to pebbles and then to sand.
The film declares its intent at the onset with two scenes -- first when young Velu (Chellapandi) stands in silence looking at his father (Karuththadaiyaan) who has taken him out of his class is asking, “Do you love your mother or me?”
Velu is to accompany his angry, drunk father to her mother’s maternal house, to deliver the message that if she doesn’t return, he’ll remarry.
They get onto a bus, and at the very next stop a woman gets on, carrying three plastic pots of water. The bus conductor charges for each pot.
Shot in Arittapatti, Pebbles’ plot almost seems like a screenwriting and direction challenge. As if someone told Vinothraj, write and direct a movie that covers just half a day with two main characters, father and son. They both go to get his mom, but return because she has already returned home.
Pebbles narrates this incident mostly with silence and through long, unrelenting shots that tell the story of the lifetime of a people and a land in pursuit of water.
As the sun beats down on the dusty land with dry, rocky mud, and we follow Valu and his father, listening to each footfall. We feel the harshness of the land on our own skin, and like Velu, who always stays at a safe distance from his father, we too fix him with a disdainful stare.
This walk is interrupted by sudden bouts of violence and small digressions.
En route we meet a family of two women, one girl and a man who are smoking out rats from a hole. We see the entire capturing and cooking process that involves breaking tiny legs, and roasting. This brutality is life-sustaining in this brutal landscape.
The camera of Parthib and Vignesh Kumulai is a character in Pebbles. It’s us. Stalking, staring. But it’s an angry stare. Like Velu’s.
When he picks up a broken piece of mirror, and while sucking on a pebble that's lodged in his cheek, aims the reflection on his father's bare back, we smile, like Velu. It feels right to surreptitiously assault the father's arrogant swag from this safe distance.
The film is also an editing marvel. Ganesh Siva (editing) doesn’t do us the favour of cutting the harshest scenes — of an endless walk, of slowly drawing out water, half a mug at a time from a little puddle, or when the father breaks his toe nail.
It makes us watch all these, as if the movie is watching us fidget and get uncomfortable.
The film's last scene is heart-breaking. Velu returns home with a puppy and he and his sister and playing with it. He then takes the pebble out and tosses it into a small mound of pebbles.
We link this to the names he was scratching on a rock "Shanthi, Lakshmi, Velu, Ganapathy" and we know this is a trip he has made several times. And on each of these trips he has sucked on a pebble.
Pebbles will be playing at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, from May 20-27. It’s a virtual film festival and passes are available online.