Hugely, tremendously, humungously happy: that is how PS Vinothraj reacted to his Tamil movie Koozhangal (Pebbles) being chosen as the Indian entry for the international feature film category at the Oscars.
The 31-year-old filmmaker spent much of Saturday accepting congratulatory messages and giving interviews. “All our team members are elated, we didn’t expect this at all,” he told Scroll.in. “Everybody has been very supportive. The Oscar nomination makes us hope that we can work hard and achieve something.”
Vinothraj’s debut feature has already stacked up acclaim, winning the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s top honour, The Tiger Award, earlier this year. Koozhangal is only the second Indian film after Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga to be given this honour.
The minimalist and powerful narrative follows a father-and-son duo over half a day. Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyaan) and Velu (Chella Pandi) travel to the house of Ganapathy’s estranged wife to bring her back home. Apart from following the equation between the aggressive and inebriated Ganapathy and the preternaturally wise Velu, the movie explores the harsh terrain, grinding poverty and lack of water that surrounds the characters.
Vinothraj based the movie on his sister’s experience, he had previously told Scroll.in after winning the Rotterdam award. His sister had been thrown out of her house by her husband and trekked 13 kilometres to reach her own village.
Koozhangal was shot with a mostly non-professional cast in the scorching summer of 2019 near Melur in Madurai. Initially backed by Learn and Teach Production, the project got a boost with the involvement of Southern movie star Nayanthara and filmmaker Vignesh Sivan, who run the company Rowdy Pictures.
On the recommendation of the Tamil director Ram, who had seen rushes at the Film Bazar film production platform in Goa in 2019, Nayanthara and Sivan stepped in as producers.
“We saw the film halfway through, it was yet to be completed,” Sivan said. “Ram, a good friend of mine, suggested the film to me. Nayanthara and I saw the footage. It was her call – she immediately said, we should make this the first production of Rowdy Pictures.”
Sivan described the movie as “powerful, very real and natural”, and an authentic portrait of conditions in rural Tamil Nadu. The producers saw no need to tinker with Vinothraj’s songless narrative or suggest any elements that might make the film more audience-friendly.
“The film doesn’t have any extra fittings,” Sivan pointed out. “Its expression has come straight from the director’s heart. That’s why it connects with everybody. We didn’t want to meddle at all. It’s very easy to throw in a song or create a commercial element. But it isn’t easy at all to create a piece like this. What Vinothraj has done is unbelievable.”
The producers hope to release the film in cinemas in early December. “With the Oscar news, the film will hopefully pull in more audiences,” Sivan said.