In a bustling Indian market, a working child carrying bags of flowers was captivated by cameramen riding huge cranes during the shoots. Two decades later, the boy has become his country’s latest film sensation.
PS Vinothraj’s first low-budget film “Koozhangal” – known internationally by its translated title “Pebbles” – was shortlisted as India’s entry in the international feature film category at next year’s Oscars.
The 32-year-old was inspired by his family’s struggle with poverty and his sister’s experience with domestic violence to tell the story of an alcoholic father and his young son walking through a arid and unforgiving landscape in his native state of Tamil Nadu.
“My real life experience gave me tenacity and helped me in this film. This kind of life became the film,” Vinothraj told AFP.
The result is an observational drama that Indian critics have described as a “masterpiece” and a “sensational debut … which is evocative, visceral and powerful”.
It won the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, with the jury declaring that the “seemingly simple and humble” effort was a “lesson in pure cinema”.
Vinothraj joins an emerging movement of Tamil directors – many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds like his – tackling societal inequalities through the voices and lives of ordinary people.
If it hadn’t been picked up by the festival circuit, his original plan was to show “Pebbles” in the villages where it was filmed – with less than 40 cast and crew.
It is the culmination of the young filmmaker’s long journey to the big screen.
He started selling flowers in Madurai at the age of nine to support his family after his father died.
âSo many things have happened in my life and these things have prepared me for it,â he said through a translator.
“I don’t speak English and I have no education. The journey of life taught me everything. These are the metaphors of the film – this is the journey of life.”
Vinothraj worked throughout his childhood and adolescence, moving to different cities.
At one point he was a worker in a textile company in Tiruppur, where he “witnessed the lives of many people ruined before my eyes” due to personal and financial problems.
âSome got married very young and went through multiple struggles. It all stuck with me, wanting to express those struggles.â
– ‘Simple and honest stories’ –
Believing that education could help him achieve his dream of becoming a director, the aspiring writer attempted to return to school, but was told he was too old.
He eventually moved to the state capital Chennai and broadened his cinematic knowledge by watching films while working in a DVD store, before working as an assistant on short films and in the theater.
While searching for ideas for his first feature film, Vinothraj’s sister walked through the door of the family home crying, her two-year-old in her arms.
She had been forced out of her marital home by her husband and had walked the 13-kilometer (eight-mile) return trip.
âI was in pain and wondering why real life is such a fight. And I realized that I’m in the movies – it’s my tool. I can talk about my pain through the movies.”
The father-son journey in “Pebbles” is told through the eyes of the child, while the harsh rural environment of Tamil Nadu and the toll it takes on its characters is a central theme of the film.
The title comes from a synonym Tamils ââuse for hills – and the stones that country people put in their mouths to ward off thirst on long journeys.
âTo know that this film has won the Tiger Award and is being sent as an Indian Oscar nomination, I am very proud,â Vinothraj said.
“Watching this film with an audience that has supported me so much is like a big party for me.”
His next project is also inspired by a family situation, and he wants to continue to do “simple and honest stories about life”.
strs-grk / slb / reb / âârbu