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Inspired by his sister’s true story, Vinothraj’s Pebbles wins prestigious Tiger Award

Pebbles is the story of a father and his son taking out a long walk along the parched rural region in Tamil Nadu to bring back his wife from her village after she was thrown out by him few days ago.

Written by Arun Janardhanan |
Updated: February 8, 2021 7:51:00 pm
PebblesPebbles is produced by Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan. (Photo: IFFR)

At a nondescript village near Melur in Madurai, the mother of a two-year-old was beaten up and thrown out of the house by her alcoholic husband in the middle of the midnight in 2015. She walked about 13 km that night to reach her own home carrying the child.

On Sunday, a movie inspired by her story won the Tiger Award, the top honour at the recently-concluded 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021. And the director of the movie was her elder brother, P S Vinothraj.

Vinothraj’s debut feature Koozhangal (Pebbles) winning the Tiger Award means a lot for everyone in his village who inspired the project.

Before the post production was completed, a ‘rough cut’ of the movie was screened at Vinothraj’s Madurai home for all his family members and neighbours, including his sister. “She cried. Many of them cried, elder women, everyone… Some said they spotted their own life in the movie,” he told The Indian Express on Monday.

While the Rotterdam festival is considered as the world’s most prestigious festival for experimental films, Tiger Awards worth about 40,000 Euros is among the most premium awards in Rotterdam.

While Pebbles signals the emergence of a new wave of experimental films in a largely commercialised Tamil film industry, it was also the first Tamil film and second Indian film, after Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga, to win the Tiger Award.

Like many aspiring filmmakers in the south Indian film world, P S Vinothraj too had been trying hard to achieve his dream for several years. He assisted in several short film projects and a feature film in the past. But he said what inspired him to make this movie was lessons he learnt from Manal Magudi theatre group in Kovilpatti in southern Tamil Nadu.

“After working in a few film projects, I decided to work in theatre and joined Manal Magudi led by the acclaimed theatre director and writer Murugu Boopathy. I travelled across India as part of their three plays. If I had tried to capture the life and inner journey of people in this film, the entire credit goes to lessons of story-telling I acquired from Manal Magudi,” Vinothraj said.

After the 2015 incident happened to his sister, Vinothraj said he wasn’t able to question her husband. “I wasn’t able to do anything. But the long way she walked that night with her two-year-old child for several hours to reach my mother’s place was disturbing. It was there in my mind. I had nothing to tell her… To console her, maybe I had told her once to forget it, and that the child will realise her sufferings one day,” the director said.

Pebbles, produced by south Indian actor Nayanthara and her partner Vignesh Shivan, is the story of a father and his son taking out a long walk along the parched rural region in Tamil Nadu to bring back his wife from her village after she was thrown out by him few days ago.

In the movie, Vinothraj said the man decides to bring her back as he realises that he cannot manage things on his own. “To convince her and bring her back, he takes his son too. Maybe, not only for his guilt or love for her but also for the fact that he needs a woman to cook, raise his child and take care of the house… . In the movie, I made him walk all the way…,” he said. His sister herself acted in one scene, in a blurred frame.

The movie captures the discord between the angry father and the son, who is visibly hurt. Vinothraj lost his father at the age of nine. His mother is a street vendor selling idli in Madurai town.

While P S Vinothraj had been frequently visiting the location for almost two years before he started the shoot near Melur, Karuthadayan, the man who acted as the father is a theatre personality hailing from a nearby village. Not only for the director but for Vignesh Kumily and G Parthib, cinematographers, and the editor Ganesh Siva, it was their first movie project.

“The project was lying idle for a long time as we had no money to complete it,” he said. It was then Tamil director Ram who came to rescue the project, later it was introduced to Nayantara and Vignesh Shivan, who straight away gave the green signal to complete the project after watching the footage the team shot.

While Vinothraj says the movie was an attempt to capture the inner journey of the father, the challenge he had taken up was to portray the small changes that happened to him during that tedious walk, along the long path, through swathes of bush and rocks.

“In real life too, I can say that there were changes, small changes over the years. He was happy because I was making a movie, they knew that it was about my sister. But in a larger way, I do not know if I can say that my sister’s life has changed. In fact, that is how lives are, isn’t it?” he said.

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