Back in 2021, PS Vinothraj was elated as his debut feature was winning rave reviews and awards at international film festivals and was also selected as the Indian entry for the 94th Academy Awards. Two years later, as he works on his sophomore directorial, Kottukkaali, Pebbles has finally found its way to the general public through SonyLIV.
Set in the barren lands of Arittapati in Madurai, the scorching heat and the leafless branches are very much a part of the film’s world as its main characters, Velu and his alcoholic abusive father Ganapathy. In a film about domestic abuse, the duo travel to meet Velu’s mother, Shanthi, who has left for her hometown in anger. From the physical distance between the father and son as they wait for a bus to a broken piece of glass found on the ground to the silent mountains that surround them, everything in the frame serves a purpose in Pebbles. “According to me, Cinema is a visual medium; if you close your eyes and play the film, you shouldn’t understand it. So, when I write a script, I want to keep it at a visual level. But I don’t want anything abstract in my films. It should be straightforward and each shot should tell a story,” says , who takes us through the world of Pebbles and the seeds behind its captivating visual grammar.
Edited excerpts below:
Why didn't Pebbles have a theatrical release?
We wanted to release the film in theatres. But it wasn’t possible to play the film with an interval break. The film’s length (75 minutes) was another factor. We tried it as an experiment but we couldn’t release it in theatres. We are happy that the audiences are getting to watch it somehow on OTT now.
Do you think a certain level of flexibility in the rules and restrictions for theatrical releases would help films like Pebbles?
Yes, there should be some flexibility. Intermission is considered to be mandatory in very few regions across the world like India. We can’t dismiss this culture but the theatres can accommodate these sorts of films with audience getting their snacks before entering the theatre, like in Hollywood. They could support films like Pebbles this way and continue the interval pattern for other films because F&B is an important business for them. We can’t change anything completely, but we will hopefully swing in a new direction.
What was the very first scene you wrote for this film?
It is based on a real-life incident of domestic violence. When the person told me about the incident over the phone, an image of a woman who walked all the way to her home at night, carrying her child, popped up in my head. This is the first image that I visualised for the film, and this is exactly what Velu sees while waiting for a bus to return to his village.
How did you select the geographical setting for Pebbles? The barren lands, leafless trees, the dry atomosphere add so much to the film’s story and visual texture.
It appears as though people from Madurai speak quite loudly and in a harsh tone, and that’s how they have been portrayed in Tamil films. I wanted to depict how landscape is a crucial factor influencing our behavior. I believe that, in some way, the land has contributed to Ganapathy’s (the abusive father) aggressive behaviour. The primary layer in our film is the land and the hot temperatures. Only then did we decide on the artists. Every film has a mood. I am trying to set the mood in Pebbles with these elements. For instance, amidst all the dried trees, we had shown a healthy, green tree. Even at the peak of Summer, the tree’s greenery remains largely unaffected. It is similar to the Karuvelam tree; it is known as the Kalli tree in these areas. We constantly tried to capture images or motifs that could carry the mood and feeling of the story through visual means.
The film is about the father-son duo’s journey. But you also bring in several side characters like the family hunting rats and a woman carrying water in pitcher pots. Why did you think it was important to show these characters and their lifestyle?
Even though the story is only about these two characters, I don’t think you can follow just them and convey their story. In Pebbles, we start the film only from the second act; no one knows the backstory. So when we don’t know anything about their situation or their economic conditions, I can only show their lifestyle through these other characters. For instance, we never show Velu’s mother, Shanthi. But we show her life through several other women through the journey. The rat hunting shows you the food habits of the place. So, I used the supporting characters to portray a better picture of the main characters, their situation and lifestyle.
Towards the end, we see Velu’s collection of pebbles, as if to justify this isn’t the first or last time such a fight happens in his house. That scene creates a great impact. How did you get this idea?
Velu walks inside the house and places the new pebble among the other pebbles on the shelf. That one shot presents the subtext behind the whole film. We are just witnessing one day of their lives, similar things have happened in their past and their lives will go on. Likewise, earlier travellers used to hold a pebble in their mouth to avoid feeling thirsty. It would help them save some energy. Since Pebbles is also a road movie, we felt it was a fitting title.
Talking about the many women whose lives resemble that of Velu’s mother, can you tell me about that one teacher, who drives a two-wheeler along with her husband? It is a hopeful addition to the story.
There were many ideas behind the teacher’s character and it can be interpreted in multiple ways. For instance, even if she is driving the two-wheeler, her husband tells her to give the vehicle back to him when they near the village. So, you can still see the traces of patriarchy. Yet, she is a well-educated, financially independent woman who handles this situation. So the teacher's character is introduced to underline the importance of education and how it takes you forward in your life. It is why Velu’s mother leaves him behind so that he can go to school. When the teacher offers to drop him at the village, it is a sign that his education will take him forward.
Why did you opt for static framing in most scenes?
If you notice, the shots are always tight and up close before Velu and Ganapathy board the bus. When they begin to travel, the conflict becomes bigger and I wanted to show how the land has seen hundreds of such people and their journeys. So, we wanted to show the land is witnessing these events. When the teacher offers to drop Velu in the village, we capture how Ganapathy looks at the vehicle until it reaches the very end and disappears after a turn. This static framing makes us perceive the distance that Ganapathy has to walk to reach his village. Like his mind feels tired, the viewers also feel tired looking at the distance.
Another aspect I loved in the film is how you used sound; be it the flight sound that stops Velu from running or how when a fight happens in a bus, the chaos is muted and all we hear is a baby crying.
In the bus scene, we muted all other sounds because all that the mother can hear is the cry of her child. Neenga podra andha sandai ellaam thaandi en kuzhandha azhugudhu apdindratha naama prathaana paduthanum la (We wanted to highlight that). The mother then decides to leave the place and run away from the sound. Likewise, we had the flight sound to show that the kid might do little things to take revenge on his father. Velu might rip the currency notes into pieces or lie to his father that he lost the matchbox, but he is after all a kid. Even when he is running away, he forgets everything else and looks up when he hears the flight’s sound. We wanted to ensure that in no way do you see the director in Velu, you should see the kid in him.
Koozhangal is not a film which has a beginning, middle or end. We don’t see a resolution or realisation. It’s just an observational film that shows a part of their lives. Why did you want to structure the film this way?
In this film, I can’t offer a solution. I can only address the issues. If I had given a solution, it would become a conventional film. We portrayed a journey on a personal level and it might be wrong for me to give a certain ending. We show the land and the people that there is hope that someday things will change. That’s the stand we were able to take.
There is a dog toy and even an actual puppy in Koozhangal and the poster of your next film, Kottukkaali, has a rooster. Tell us about the animals in your film.
In the case of Koozhangal, when I see it from a different perspective, I see it as the story of this lost puppy who is trying to make its way home and the whole film happened just so that it could find his home. If Velu hadn’t torn the currency notes, if they hadn’t walked back home, he wouldn’t have found the puppy. When I watch the film, I like to look at it this way. But when I made the film, it was all about presenting things from the child’s point of view. The father would walk past this puppy, but Velu would stop and take it home. Be it the balloon, the toy or the puppy, it is to show that when we have a kid’s mentality, several problems get resolved. In Kottukkaali, the rooster plays a main role. It rooster will have more prominence than the puppy in Koozhangal.
In your previous interviews, you have talked about your struggles and how your love for cinema helped you lead a better life. What does cinema mean to you?
Engayo kaanama poiruka vendiyavan thaan naan (I was supposed to be somewhere else, lost). But my love for films and what I learned from books and cinema about politics, caste, human beings and culture, has led me here. The fact that I am able to do a film, get recognised or even give you this interview is only a bonus. I am grateful that I wanted to enter cinema; that wish is in itself a blessing.