It happened innocuously – playfully even. On Sunday, PS Vinothraj, director of the Tamil-language Koozhangal (Pebbles), was invited for an “informal” Zoom meeting by the organisers of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. After some talk about this and that, the organisers informed Vinothraj that his spare narrative about the journey of a father and son across an arid corner of rural Tamil Nadu had won the festival’s topmost honour, the Tiger Award.

“We were massively happy – we were told rather suddenly, and we hadn’t anticipated it at all,” 31-year-old Vinothraj told Scroll.in. “I can never forget this moment.”

Koozhangal is only the second Indian movie to win the Tiger Award after Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga in 2017.

“In the midst of many admirable and ambitious works, the jury was blown away by a seemingly simple and humble film we fell in love with instantly,” the Tiger Award jury said in a statement. “Creating a maximum impact with a minimum in means, the filmmaker reaches his goal with the same conviction and determination as his main characters. The result is a lesson in pure cinema, captivating us with its beauty and humor, in spite of its grim subject.”

Koozhangal (2021). Courtesy Rowdy Pictures/Learn and Teach Production.

Koozhangal portrays half a day in the lives of a noxious father and his watchful son. The inebriated Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyaan) arrives at Velu’s school one morning and bundles Velu (Chella Pandi) into a bus. The destination is the home of Ganapathy’s estranged wife. On the bus is a quietly despairing woman and her baby, a possible visual aide for the plot’s source.

Vinothraj loosely based Koozhangal on his younger sister, who was thrown out of her home by her drunk husband one night in 2015. She walked 13 km with her child to reach her parents’ home. What might she have encountered along the way, Vinothraj has often wondered.

The movie is set in the same place in which the event that inspired the film occurred. Koozhangal plays out in villages on the outskirts of Melur in Madurai. The earth is cracked, the vegetation sparse. Forbidding hills and massive rocks abound. In this bleak landscape, in the heat of the summer, Velu follows his father to his mother’s house, witnesses a fight between Ganapathy and his mother’s family, and then trails behind Ganapathy as he makes his way back to his own home in a neighbouring village.

Vinothraj has previously made short films and worked as an assistant film director. He had also toured with Murugu Boopathy’s Manal Magudi theatre group in Kovilpatti, he told The Indian Express.

“I travelled across India as part of their three plays,” Vinothraj told the newspaper. “If I had tried to capture the life and inner journey of people in this film, the entire credit goes to lessons of story-telling I acquired from Manal Magudi.”

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Subway, a short film by PS Vinothraj.

Vinothraj’s movie itself doesn’t have any traces of staginess. Through a dexterous cross-weave of ellipses, segues and tracking and travelling shots, the self-taught director and editor Ganesh Siva get a compelling rhythm going. Sub-plots provide other clues to the region’s desperate poverty.

The noteworthy moments includes a nine-minute shot featuring Ganapathy squabbling with his wife’s family. Elsewhere, cinematographers Vignesh Kumulai and G Parthib creates a series of stark images, including top-angle views of the characters making their way through parched fields and tense close-ups of an increasingly enraged Ganapathy and his wary son.

Vinothraj and his crew spent close to two years on research and recces. “The landscape was very important. Tt had to be authentic and it had to speak to us,” he said. “We planned the shot divisions in advance. We shot for 36 days in the summer of 2019, during the hottest period of summer.”

PS Vinothraj.

Apart from the challenges of shooting in a place with no semblance of creature comforts – the crew was staying in Melur town 15 kilometres away – the pebble-filled roads at the location posed another challenge. Ganapathy and Velu walk about barefoot. Since the movie used location sound, the crew also had to work without footwear, Vinothraj said.

“The location got to us – we would all be worked up, we would shout at each other, but when we would view the footage at night, we would take hope and prepare for the next day’s shoot,” the filmmaker added.

The cast comprised non-professionals and were chosen from villages in the region – except the actor who plays Ganapathy. Karuththadaiyaan is a talented stage performer, Vinothraj said, but he was initially hesitant to appear in the role. “We chased him for a year,” Vinothraj said. “We auditioned other actors but kept returning to him. I finally went to his house and sat him down and showed him the script. That is when he agreed.”

Karuththadaiyaan in Koozhangal (2021). Courtesy Rowdy Pictures/Learn and Teach Production.

The project was initiated by Learn and Teach Production, whose members had been impressed with Vinothraj’s short films. When the movie was halfway through its shoot, the rough footage was taken to the annual Film Bazar film production platform in Goa in 2019.

There, Koozhangal went from being a production in some peril of not being completed to hot property. The movie was added to a list of recommended titles aimed at potential co-producers. Among the people who watched the footage and recognised its possibilities was the Tamil director Ram, whose own credits include Peranbu and Taramani.

“We were already huge fans of Ram, and when we saw how excited he was, we were almost embarrassed,” Vinothraj recalled.

Ram gave the crew valuable suggestions – reshoot a few scenes, add some background music. Ram put in a word with Yuvan Shankar Raja, who ended up composing the minimalistic score. More importantly, Ram made the contact between Vinothraj and Rowdy Pictures, run by the influential Tamil movie star Nayanthara and the director Vignesh Shivan. Their intervention helped complete the movie.

It’s too early to talk about how the movie will be distributed in India, Vinothraj said. “We are still enjoying the moment, and we are still figuring it out.”

Chella Pandi in Koozhangal (2021). Courtesy Rowdy Pictures/Learn and Teach Production.

Despite the presence of mainstream names, Koozhangal makes no attempt to be remotely feelgood by including light scenes or throwing in a folk song, as stories with rural backdrops sometimes tend to do.

“The narrative had absolutely no need for songs,” Vinothraj pointed out. “If I had included any songs, it would have been a betrayal.”

This fire-in-the-belly approach leads to a climax that underlines the Sisyphean quest at the movie’s heart. After spending over an hour with Ganapathy and Velu, Koozhangal goes into a wholly unexpected direction. It’s nearly as surprising as that moment on Sunday, when a largely young and inexperienced crew learnt that their labour of love had moved a bunch of foreigners miles away from Melur’s unyielding terrain.

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Koozhangal (2021).