A drunk man, a bleak village, a reluctant son — and a long journey to the wife’s home, asking her to return. The first half on a local bus, the other half on foot — barefoot, in punishing heat, a journey that doesn’t seem to end. The father and son barely talk; they walk, and walk, and walk some more. The setting, a hamlet in Tamil Nadu, resembles a desert: barren lands, despairing trees, stale trails.

Vinothraj P.S.’s debut, Koozhangal (Pebbles), which won the top prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, unfolds as a day in the life of a village, where rains have evaporated, turning farmers into hunters: they roast rats for lunch.

Koozhangal doesn’t rely on revealing dialogues or intricate plot turns. Its story can be summarised in a short sentence. It almost risks being an art-house cliché: a sparse quiet drama, much like the lives of its characters, where nothing much happens. But the magic of the film lies in the way it is told — deriving its powers from silence and visual storytelling.

Vinothraj leaves us alone with the characters and images — there are no voiceovers, few filmmaking cues — presenting a ravaged world unvarnished. The final outcome doesn’t make us a voyeur but a companion: we stroll inside a foreign setting, yet feel like a native.

Koozhangal, which won the top prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, unfolds as a day in the life of a village, where rains have evaporated, turning farmers into hunters

Vinothraj is able to elicit that effect because he relies on the Iceberg Theory: his film lies both below and above the surface, engaging not just the eyes and ears but also the mind. We know little about the main character (Karuththadaiyaan; excellent performance, full of wounding intensity). His traits trickle out like water from damp clothes. We know that he’s a drunkard, a chain smoker and broke. Wearing a perpetual frown, he bullies and beats his son. He used to beat his wife, too, causing her to leave the village. He is desperate and broken, irritable and hostile — miserable as well as repulsive.

But besides that, we know nothing else. We don’t know what he does for a living (if he does anything at all). We don’t know his recent or distant past — only a few hours of the present. We don’t know his feelings. We don’t even know his name for the longest. That too, eventually, comes from his son. His chalked inscriptions on a rock lay out the family tree. The one beside “father” reads “Ganapathy”.

Withholding such crucial information often results in an inert film-viewing experience. But Vinothraj is such a perceptive filmmaker, so in sync with his story, that he doesn’t alienate but invites the audience. Even simple decisions have the force of reason, the magic of logic.

Consider, for instance, Koozhangal’s first few minutes that flip like the snapshots of a village. The camera is still; the action is minimal. It agitates into movement, via a handheld set-up, only when Ganapathy whips himself into a determined walk.

This language persists throughout the film, making us feel that we’re with him. The background score, too, is muted in the initial portion — we don’t hear anything except the ambient sounds. The music kicks in for the first time when there’s a scuffle in the bus, swelling and drowning out the noise of characters.

Design elevates intent

This is impressive, motivated filmmaking, where design elevates intent. In the absence of dialogues or exposition, the cinematography (by Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib) writes its own prose.

Koozhangal is set in a drought-wrecked village, where people are as desiccated as the place: sucked dry of their hopes, aspirations, dreams. Locked in an abusive relationship with their land, the people have become powerless mites. And the camera shows that. Many scenes are filmed from a towering angle, shrinking Ganapathy to the extent that it looks as if the land will swallow him.

A lot of scenes use wide shots and deep focus, emphasising the setting’s desolate vastness — it looks like an infinite prison: existence has become incarceration.

This bleakness is further contrasted by geometrically gorgeous composition, using the rule of thirds, symmetric frames, leading lines.

Over its 75-minute runtime, Vinothraj routinely cuts between the principal characters, the village and its inhabitants, revealing a disintegrating world: disconsolate trees craving rain, unemployed men playing cards, women waiting for their turns to fill water from a small stagnant pool — sitting silent in resignation.

As the setting continues to unfold, our curiosities find answers. We don’t know anything about Ganapathy’s livelihood, because there’s nothing to know. Was he a farmer, is he a farmer? It doesn’t matter. No one’s a farmer in this village; they can’t be. There’s no point knowing about his previous life, either, because his past, present and future have coalesced into nought. For people frozen in their miseries, the only thing that matters is now — such as Ganapathy’s arduous never-ending 13-kilometre walk.

And then there’s the boy, Velu (Chellapandi): the accumulator of joy, the keeper of hope. When Ganapathy picks him up from school to meet his mother, Velu picks up a few balloons for his sister. In the bus, as the camera looks at the landscape with a dejected gaze, a red balloon peeks out of the window. Velu is holding it, almost as an act of defiance.

But sometimes his protests are more overt, especially when he’s proving a point to his father. In the bus, he sits away from Ganapathy; in his mother’s village, when his father fights with his in-laws, an angry Velu tears the bus tickets, forcing them to walk; he hides his father’s matchbox so that he’s unable to smoke.

On their way back, as Velu is walking behind Ganapathy, we get a few point-of-view shots. The distance between the father and the son reduces, inducing an unsettling feeling: Will Velu attack Ganapathy? The prospect of violence, whether imagined or real, always looms large, threatening to consume the boy caught in this bog for no fault of his.

But Velu, despite his circumstances, is still a boy: even the smallest of things animate him. A shining shard of glass captivates his attention; he picks it up and bounces sunlight off it. He finds a stray pup, holding and playing with it, carrying it home — the only gift he can give his sister. He picks a pebble on the way, storing it in a corner of his hovel. The boy has collected more than a dozen of them — perhaps they are unsavoury souvenirs, of his parents’ crumbling marriage, of his fading innocence. Amid all this, it’s difficult to not ponder his ultimate fate. Will he surrender one day and become an unfortunate cliché: a boy condemned to repeat the sins of his father?

This is a masterful film about the mutation of misery. Left without a source of income, Ganapathy presumably took refuge in alcohol. That brought out his latent vicious side, inflicting torture on his wife. That intensified the resentment in his family, hollowing it from inside. But this isn’t just a day in the life of Ganapathy; this is his life. His wife will run away again; the father and son will make another trip to her village; Velu’s stack of pebbles will continue to grow.

This is the real cost of loss — lived day in, day out — existing beyond the din of election promises, primetime debates, and impassioned columns. But Koozhangal shows and recedes, because everything else will be inadequate. How do you account for punishments that aren’t tied to transgressions? How do you measure the cost of lost childhood?

— By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 28th, 2021

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