From child worker to hope at the Oscars, the extraordinary life of PS Vinothraj | India

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AAs a hard-working child working in Madurai’s flower markets, there was nothing more exciting for PS Vinothraj than when the film crews came down. He put down his bags of petals and gazed in wonder at the camera operators who sat on top of cranes to take spectacular shots. It was, to his nine-year-old mind, intoxicating. “I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “My passion for cinema was born in this flower market.

The odds were stacked against him. Vinothraj was born into a poor family of day laborers in Tamil Nadu. He left school at the age of nine to support his family after his father’s death, and by age 14 he was working in the sweatshop in Tiruppur.

This month, his first film pebbles, a Tamil-language film made on a low budget and set in the barren landscape where he grew up, was unanimously chosen as the Indian Oscar nominee. In February of that year he had won the Tiger Prize for best film at the 50th Rotterdam International Film Festival. In a New Yorker review, Vinothraj has been described as an “extraordinary observational filmmaker” whose film presents “a gendered view of rabies.”

pebbles is, as Vinothraj describes it, a ‘snapshot of a lifetime’. It depicts the journey of an abusive and alcoholic father and his son as they return home through the arid and extremely hot landscape of rural Tamil Nadu, after the father dragged the boy out of school and l ‘took him to a village where he wants to force his ex-wife to return home.

He was inspired by real events; as Vinothraj says, “history chose me”. When her sister married a man from a nearby village, the family was unable to provide a dowry. In a humiliating walk, her sister was sent back to the family home by her new husband through the parched landscape. It is this walk of shame, which so many women are still forced to endure, that Vinothraj wanted to capture.

“But I wanted to make it so that it was the husband who had to take the walk, not the wife,” he said. “It was my little way of getting revenge for this humiliation of my sister.” He also chose to represent the journey through the eye of a child, the son, to infuse “hope and humanity” into their journey.

PS Vinothraj, the director of Pebbles, said his Tamil-language film was inspired by real events.

The film focuses on the small but devastating tragedies and inequalities that life in rural Tamil Nadu inflicts on women, often at the hands of men. Women forced to flee the violent hands of husbands who drink too much. Women forced to get off buses by scorching heat as their babies, awakened by aggressively beaten men, need to be breastfed. Women forced to patiently draw water from the ground and put it in jars as the merciless sun beats down.

Tamil Nadu’s oppressive environment pervades pebbles. “The scenery is the third main character in the film,” Vinothraj said. “I wanted to explore it in detail, the role it plays in the plight of people.” For authenticity, he filmed during the hottest days of the year in May. Temperatures got so high over the 27 days of filming that the cameras started to malfunction.

Vinothraj’s determination to make films never wavered. While working in garment factories at 14, he enrolled in college between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. before consecutive shifts, realizing he would need education to enter the cinema.

Small things would bring glimmers of joy. In pebbles a girl, whose family is pictured in such abject poverty that she hunts rats for food, is pictured momentarily euphoric as she collects helicopter seeds in her dress, then scatters them in the air. “This is how I felt when I was a kid,” Vinothraj said. “The conditions in my life were bad but I could still find times to be happy. I didn’t feel like I was in pain because I didn’t know anything else.

At 19, after his bosses attempted to marry him – a tactic used to keep child laborers in factories once they grew up – he decided it was time to leave. He had heard that Chennai, the main bustling metropolis of Tamil Nadu, was where movies were made and movie people mingled.

Indian Oscar nominee Pebbles focuses on the inequalities life inflicts on women in Tamil Nadu.
Indian Oscar nominee Pebbles focuses on the inequalities life inflicts on women in Tamil Nadu.

“I had no idea how I was going to survive; my only thought was that I had to pursue my passion for cinema, ”he said. Upon arriving in Chennai, he slept on the streets until he convinced a DVD store to hire him.

“In the DVD store, I watched three movies a day,” he says. “English films, Korean films, Japanese films, Latin American films. I loved Charlie Chaplin The child, and Children of Heaven, an Iranian movie from the 1970s, and my favorite was Eternity and a day, by a Greek director. I was never able to understand the dialogue or the subtitles but I was just watching the visuals. It helped me form my own cinematic language.

The DVD store also gave Vinothraj access to directors, who borrowed or purchased films, often on his recommendation. After almost three years he was hired as an assistant on a short film and began to move up the industry ladder until eight years later he was assistant director on a major Tamil film. He finally started working on pebbles three years ago.

The success of the film left Vinothraj in a state of disbelief. He thought his only audience would be the villagers whose lives inspired the story.

“I am in awe of how this story has traveled, how people all over the world have connected with the film and understood its essence,” he said. “It’s all I ever wanted.”


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