There has never been a Tamil film that has captured the vastness of rural life in a more austere, art-house fashion. PS Vinothraj knows what are all the basics of filmmaking that is lacking, even in the works of celebrated filmmakers
(The review contains spoilers)
It is a wide shot.
A man enters the frame from the left and exits. He is walking and the camera follows. He is still walking and the camera is still tracking him. The man comes to a halt, as does the camera. We get a point-of-view shot of the man looking at a sea of faces. A boy stands up dutifully — out of fear, not respect. They start walking and the camera proceeds. “Do you like your aatha or me?” the man asks. The boy doesn’t answer. They are on their way to bring back the wife-mother, who has left the home. They are still walking and the camera is still with them. We get a tracking shot and a couple of wide. We see faces, places. We are made to see faces, places.
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Through these two characters, we get a sense of the emptiness of a drought-hit village. The silence is eerie and is broken by ambient noises. We see the duty-bound women doing household chores, while the absence of men is noticeably felt. The men are either playing cards, drinking and chit-chatting or taking a nap. The power structure is clear.
Notice how the camera changes its role. We get a long shot — of the man borrowing money from one of the gamblers for alcohol. The man is a drunkard. But this is not established by the director, but by the people around him. Later on, the man’s domestic violence and the cold relationship he shares with the in-laws are casually slipped in by two gossiping women, as they head to sandhai. Nothing is established by the director and everything is fed to us by the faces we meet inside and outside the hamlets in Arittapatti.
The man walks and the boy follows, like a dog. They halt at a petty-shop and the man buys a ₹105 (quarter bottle). He takes a gulp and we get a point-of-view shot of the boy. The man lights up a bidi and takes a drag. Two more. Three more. The scene doesn’t cut. The camera never really cuts. He orders the son to leave his bag at the shop. As they wait for the bus, the man and the boy look at either side of the road, as if to imply that they are at crossroads.
It is a wide shot. And it is fantastic (scroll up to see the lead image).
This jaw-dropping opening sequence of Koozhangal (Pebbles) clearly signals one thing: PS Vinothraj understands the functioning of cinema as a form. He, perhaps, is among the tribe of filmmakers who believe in showing, rather than telling. It is funny that Koozhangal premiered at a festival that also saw another film on resistance. Landscapes of Resistance could have been a more suitable title for Vinothraj’s debut work. For, the people who inhabit these places and whose lives and livelihood (I would prefer the Tamil word vazhviyal) depend on and circle around these landscapes, are the people who resist. They are the everyday people you meet who tell you a certain story about their everyday lives. Again, this is shown and not told.
- Cast: Karutthadaiyaan and Chellapandi
- Director: PS Vinothraj
- Technical crew: Parthib and Vignesh Kumulai (Cinematography), Ganesh Siva (Editing), Hari Prasad (Sound Design) and Yuvan Shankar Raja (Music)
Like the lady carrying three large water pots on a bus to Ettimangalam. How far would she have travelled from her village to collect water, is not revealed. But it makes you think because you participate. It makes you think of the everyday mother who travels with her baby that starts wailing when a scuffle breaks out between our man and an everyday man, when the former smokes inside the bus. It makes you think because of the way the camera zooms past in-between the men’s legs and freezes on the baby, as if to convey that the scuffle has disrupted the baby’s reality.
It is an extreme long shot.
The everyday mother carries her baby and walks. They are at the far end of the frame, almost appearing like ants. But we still hear the baby wailing from a distance; the sound engineer does a brilliant job. The camera captures the hollowness. We see the mother sitting under a sheltering tree, breastfeeding. It is a wide shot. And it is the kind of a pensive shot that has a painterly quality.
Vinothraj wields the camera like a weapon; it is the most fascinating aspect of Koozhangal if you think of the visual possibilities that they try and achieve. But that is the thing, right? Vinothraj understands what a master shot is, more importantly, its purpose. There is a gobsmacking unbroken shot that runs for about 12-15 minutes, if I remember correctly. It wasn’t meant to show that they could execute the sequence in a single take, but to build the tension gradually so that you could feel the raw energy that comes out, when male ego gets bruised. Even the expletives exchanged bring about a certain mood, certain authenticity to the milieu. That happens when a clash breaks out between the man and his in-laws. You could almost draw a map from where the camera began to where it ended, in an oscillatory motion.
He understands the visual impact a tracking shot would generate on the screen, when you place the camera near the subject. He understands what a top-angle shot would do to an arid land. He knows when to shift the camera’s gaze. He understands the why of a wide shot. He understands what sound design brings to the table. He understands the effect the sound of a boy chewing on a pebble would produce. The larger point being: he knows what are all the basics of filmmaking that is lacking, even in the works of celebrated filmmakers. Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music, too, respects and complements the filmmaking. My most favourite scene in Koozhangal arrives in a chase sequence, when the boy tears up the wad of notes to get back at his father. The boy runs and the man trudges his way through (there is something stylish about the way Karutthadaiyaan walks). When he eventually catches up and begins to beat the son, the camera turns its gaze away from them — as if to steer clear of what to show and what not.
There has never been a Tamil film that has captured the vastness of rural life in a more austere, art-house fashion. And there has never been a Tamil film that has captured the passing away of time, like the way Koozhangal does. We get to see the navigation of two extremes of the characters, as they walk back in the scorching heat. If their journey forms the central plot, there is a parallel track about the most oppressed family that survives on rats (check out the short film Uraiyur Eli). Some of you might find these scenes off-putting, but that seems to be the point. To make us feel the discomfort by trying to document their vazhviyal. Vinothraj documents the extreme of their desolate landscapes and empty water canals. He is very much making a political statement by showing, not by telling.
Every small detail — landscapes, decaying trees, the Sun, a bed of rocks, a broken mirror and pebbles — are inherently part of the film’s larger construction that adds another layer to the characters or helps in influencing their behaviour. Like when the man gazes at someone, presumably a woman because it is a POV shot, losing his focus on the road and hurting his foot.
Or when the boy’s school teacher catches them in the middle of their expedition and offers to take him on her bike, deserting the father who continues his laboriously endless walk. The boy waits and the father arrives. We come to know their names: Velu and Ganapathy (played by Chellapandi and Karutthadaiyaan respectively).
Velu stands up dutifully, like in the first scene, and gets a slap. Ganapathy walks and Velu follows, like a dog. The cycle completes its arc. You feel restless. You are made to feel restless. From the title, we learn that it is just another day for Velu.
Koozhangal had its world première at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it is competing for the Tiger Award. Watch this space for more on IFFR.
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