In 2016, PS Vinothraj received a phone call from his older sister in the dead of the night. She told him that her husband threw her out of the house after a fight and that she’s going to walk 13 kilometers from her husband’s village to their parents’ home in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
“I didn’t know how to console her. I didn’t know what to say to her,” the 33-year-old filmmaker told VICE. “That moment… troubled me deeply. But I also knew that this is not a personal story or lament of just one woman.”
Vinothraj, who grew up in the underdeveloped district of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, knows the story of domestic violence is not unique to his sister. “This is a problem that women face all over the world.”
Between 2019 and 2020, Vinothraj channeled his anger over his sister’s plight into what is now his debut film, Koozhangal or Pebbles. The film was India’s entry to the Best International Feature Film category at next year’s Oscars, and though it did not get a nomination, the film has garnered 14 nominations and five wins in various international and Indian film festivals this year. Some of its wins include the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Best Director award at the Singapore International Film Festival, and the Special Jury Award in International Competition at the Transilvania International Film Festival.
While Pebbles is receiving critical acclaim ahead of its official release in India, Vinothraj can’t help but revisit the story and the landscape that inspired him to become a filmmaker. The film’s trailer features the same stretch of parched land his sister once walked on – dry and unrelentingly cruel when temperatures run high. Vinothraj grew up in poverty, like many others in rural India.
Statistically, women face the fallout of poverty more than men, especially in a country like India where poverty deepens gender inequalities and exacerbates violence against girls and women. The National Family Health Survey conducted between 2015 and 2016 found that one in three women in India were subjected to some form of domestic abuse, while only one in 10 women reported the violence to the police or to a healthcare professional.
In his film, though, Vinothraj turns the burden of violence around, and shows us the journey – bare feet, no less – of an alcoholic, chain-smoking, wife-beating husband and his young son. Ganapathy, the man, goes on a long, sun-scorched journey to bring back his wife who ran away from their home because of domestic violence, forcing his son to accompany him. The father-son duo clash with each other out of aggression and frustration. The soaring temperatures of Tamil Nadu, which often cross 40 degrees Celsius in peak summers, heighten the tensions between the characters.
Before he entered his film to festivals abroad, Vinothraj showed it to the women in one village in Madurai. “I was doubtful about the film getting a positive reception,” he said. “So I asked these women to watch my film. As they watched, I heard them intensely discussing among themselves how their husbands behaved the same way. To me, that was the first applause my film got. After that, I got confident about showing the film to the world.”
“I asked these women to watch my film. As they watched, I heard them intensely discussing among themselves how their husbands behaved the same way.”
Vinothraj grew up facing acute economic hardships. He was born to a family of daily wage labourers, a category of informal workforce who are estimated to be around 450 million across India, earning a minimum wage of as little as 176 Indian Rupees ($2) a day, or possibly nothing, since the minimum wage is not uniformly implemented or strictly followed by the employers. For the most part, they don’t receive any form of social security either.
When his father passed away, Vinothraj dropped out of school at the age of 9 and started working in flower markets. There, he would often encounter film crews from the region’s film industry, men who would swoop up and down on camera cranes. “That’s how my fascination with filming also grew,” he said. “In fact, I wanted to be the guy going up and down the crane with a camera.”
At 14 years old, as financial constraints pressed down upon his family even more, he took up a job as a child labourer in a factory in the city of Tirupur, a hub of garment factories where children make clothes for international brands. “There were lots of other child labourers around me,” he said. “I saw how their lives got spoiled, including my closest friends. I started getting concerned about my own future.”
Vinothraj decided to finish his schooling while working in a garment factory to get himself to his destination: filmmaking. At 18, he moved to the bustling city of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, and also a hub of filmmaking, creative arts, and cultural activities such as theatre. There, he worked for five years at a local DVD shop frequented by many from the region’s film industry, and bagged his first gigs to assist directors.
He would also watch DVDs of international films, especially Iranian and Latin American films. “I’m not comfortable with English because I can’t read subtitles,” he said. During the interview for this story, Vinothraj turned to his assistant director for translations.
“But I watched the films that were visually rich, as I couldn’t understand dialogues very well. This small DVD shop was called New World. It was strange that this was literally the new world for me.”
The DVD store, he added, is out of business now, like hundreds of others shuttered in the internet age.
After a brief stint assisting filmmakers, Vinothraj gravitated towards theatre. He joined Manal Magudi, an award-winning contemporary Tamil theatre troupe located in the small town of Kovilpatti, in Tamil Nadu. The group is known for being experimental and postmodernist in their approach to storytelling. Needless to say, theatre played a big part in forming Vinothraj’s visual style. “The dialogues are minimal and the artists convey ideas and stories through body language, lights and music,” said Vinothraj. “This was instrumental in forming my filmmaking language.” The drama troupe also travelled across the country and used the landscape to inform their performances.
Pebbles stays true to Vinothraj’s principles of filmmaking in more ways than one. While writing the script, he kept going back to the stretch of land his sister walked on, researching the landscape for two years, and its people. The landscape, he said, was a protagonist in itself, reflecting the emotions of the characters, and the harsh realities of poverty in India. The crew, too, came from the same land.
“I wanted the film to be genuine. The people in the film just had to relate to the film,” he said, adding that with the exception of Karuththadaiyaan, the theatre actor who played the alcoholic father, the rest of the cast have no acting background. They are, in fact, actual villagers who live in the neighbouring areas, and more or less drew from real-life experiences for the film. The cast also includes Vinothraj’s sisters, who play minor roles. His brother-in-law who once drove his sister out of the house didn’t act in the film but saw the filming. “My brother-in-law told me that the filming process helped change his behaviour a little,” said Vinothraj.
The shoots also took place at the hottest time of the year, often between 12 to 3 PM. “Other than the people who live here, nobody else in the world can handle the heat or understand what I wanted to create in the film,” said Vinothraj.
The boy who plays the son in the film was chosen after auditioning 65 children from the village. “I wanted someone who was living a similar life to what the boy in the script experienced. The life of Chellapandi, who ended up playing the son, was filled with so much pain, having to take care of his family at such a young age. I knew he would be able to capture the essence, which he did,” the director said, adding that the shoot was done in 37 days, and the film was completed in early 2020.
The film’s title has many takeaways too. Vinothraj said that the name Koozhangal or Pebbles, draws from the rocky terrain he filmed on. Secondly, there’s a custom of locals putting pebbles in their mouths to quench their thirst in the searing sun. “And thirdly, in the film, I show that the son is putting one pebble on top of each other in the end. It’s symbolic,” he said. After his sister walked back home in 2016, she eventually went back to her husband – an incident that was to repeat many times over. Many women stuck in abusive relationships often find themselves living in a similar vicious cycle of abuse. “These stories pile on, like those pebbles,” he said.
Vinothraj is already on to his next project, which is also inspired by his own life in his village. The story, again, revolves around the women he grew up with. He dreams of creating a fully fictional film too but, for now, he wants to stay close to the realities around him.
“There are countless stories where I come from, but I’m just the medium,” he said. “These real stories have disturbed me enough to keep going back to them. But this landscape, these people, they urge me to tell their stories honestly. And I’ll keep doing that.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.