Director: PS Vinothraj
Cast: Karuththadaiyan, Chella Pandi
Music: Yuvan Shankar Raja
Almost a year ago, director Ram called me to watch a movie by a new filmmaker. I went without expecting much, but what I saw blew my mind. It was the purest "cinema" I'd seen in a long, long time — something that told its story with faces and landscapes and movement rather than through dialogue. I offered to clean up the subtitles (and they were kind enough to give me an end credit) — but this is the kind of filmmaking that doesn't need those subtitles. It works at a visual, visceral level, and I am glad they were able to get big names on board to increase this film's profile. "Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan present" says the producers' credit, at the beginning. The music is by Yuvan Shankar Raja, who wisely gives us very little by way of a background score. Because the sound design is far more important. Music manipulates. Sound just is.
This week, the film — PS Vinothraj's Koozhangal (Pebbles) — had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. The opening image is that of a bird making a nest on a bent branch. Beyond, there's a bright blue sky, there are clouds. Nature is woven into every frame: whether Nature nature or human nature. The loosest, genre-based way of describing the film is as a "road movie". From Wikipedia: "A road movie is a film genre in which the main characters leave home on a road trip, typically altering the perspective from their everyday lives. Road movies often depict travel in the hinterlands, with the films exploring the theme of alienation and examining the tensions and issues of the cultural identity…"
That's what Koozhangal is, in a nutshell, and it gets going when the short-tempered Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyan) discovers that his wife has left for her mother's house, some 13 kilometres away. The underlying issue is domestic abuse (Ganapathy is a foul-mouthed drunkard), but the film doesn't open with an "inciting incident". It plays like a page from a diary where every page (every day) is basically the same story. This is not the first time the wife has left home. This won't be the last. This just happens to be the time we witness this ritual. Ganapathy pulls his son Velu (Chella Pandi) out of school, and the two board a bus to get the wife/mother back home. (They don't know this yet, but the punishing return journey will occur on foot.)
We never see this wife/mother. But in the bus, we see a woman who could be a stand-in for all such women in that region. She has a sleeping baby on her lap. A fight breaks out between Ganapathy and another man, and at first we hear them swearing at each other. A little later, the baby is woken up by the commotion. We hear the baby crying, but we no longer hear the men's voices. It's as though these men have been muted, replaced by a short stretch of ambient music. It's a gorgeous Expressionistic effect. Like Ganapathy's wife, this woman, too, "leaves". She gets down from the bus and seeks shelter under a tree. Finally, she gets a few moments of peace, away from all these men who seem to be angry all the time, their anger as scorching as the sun that has baked the earth dry over a long period of drought.
Cinematographers Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib give us a spectacular series of bleached frames that make us boil with the characters inside the movie. (When Ganapathy steps inside the shade of his son's school, we actually feel the coolness, and not just because there's a fan running.) The real heat is, of course, the rage inside Ganapathy, which he sustains for almost an hour of the 75-minute running time. This makes the non-explosive climax all the more remarkable. With all the anger that's been building (and building and building) inside this man, you expect the human equivalent of a volcanic eruption. Instead, we get the human equivalent of the air hissing out of a balloon. In a sad way, it's really funny. The non-professional actors non-act marvellously. Acting manipulates. These people just are.
The major portion of Koozhangal (the title is "explained" beautifully with a quiet visual of a stack of pebbles) depicts father and son walking back home, after visiting the wife/mother's folks. They walk. And they walk. And they walk. Barefoot. The sound design (Hari Prasad) is outstanding, as is the way Vinothraj gives us geographical markers along the way: trees, giant rock formations, a stone on which Velu has written the names of his parents and sister, a family that catches and eats rats. Everything/everyone becomes a sort of "milestone" along the way. Even the way the geography of the villages is revealed is through walking. There are no "establishing shots". We look at people and homes and cattle and streets as Ganapathy and Velu walk past them.
Along the way, we get some understated commentary. One of the teachers who works in Velu's school seems to have a more "equal" relationship with her husband. Maybe the point is that education (and the resulting financial independence) has shaped her life differently? Again, nothing is underlined and we are free to make of it what we will. Along the way, we get some surrealistic touches. The snake that crosses Ganapathy's path, the anklet bells he hears (reminiscent of the "white-sari Mohini pisasu" trope in our cinema) — are these "real" or the result of a brain that's being fried by the heat? Along the way, we get a lot of poetry as well. A woman who boards the bus with pots of water finds an echo with women gathered around a water hole. A lost plastic toy shaped like a dog is "reincarnated" as a puppy.
Despite the unrelenting poverty, despite the many tragedies in the scenario (both natural and man-made), Koozhangal doesn't beg for our sympathies. The rat-catching family, the mother with the baby, Velu — we are not invited to pity them. This is a remarkably unsentimental film. There's even some "comedy" with a piece of mirror Velu finds along the way. (Again, this is beautiful filmmaking. The framing makes us think the boy is drawn to a flower-bearing bush — one of the few bursts of colour in this parched landscape. But he is actually drawn to the mirror.) Only at the very end do we feel a twinge. It's a reinforcement of the drought in the region, and the visual feels like all of Thanneer Thanneer encapsulated in a matter of minutes. With Arun Karthick's Nasir (which played at Rotterdam last year) and now Koozhangal, it may be safe to say that a rigorous art cinema tradition has finally arrived in Tamil cinema.