“Everybody Had to Work Barefoot”: P.S. Vinothraj on His Tiger-Award Winning Pebbles
The fields that once sustained Arittapatti village have perished from a long drought. All that’s left is parched desert without trees to screen the land from the sun. Since farm work is virtually non-existent, locals must cross this harsh terrain to jobs in the surrounding towns. P.S. Vinothraj’s Tiger Award-winning Pebbles, follows a barefoot father and son as they travail this desert in rural Tamil Nandu. A day drunk Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyaan) plucks his son (Chellapandi) from class and immediately asks him to choose between himself or his mother. The little boy doesn’t reply, his frenetic father walks off, and the son has little choice but to trail behind him in search of his mother. Ganapathy’s wife has fled him, for obvious reasons. The viewer comes to know him as a fuming drunk who incites havoc everywhere he goes. What follows is a barefoot walk back and forth across the desert. The son alternates between running from his abusive father and resentfully following him again and again.
Vinothraj talked with us about how his script was a meticulous blueprint for Pebble’s casting process, how the film would be shot, and even how it would be edited after the fact.
This interview was interpreted by the film’s executive producer Amudhavan Karruppiah.
Filmmaker: What did you learn from Manal Magudi theater troupe [Vinothraj has said he was inspired to make the film from the lessons he learned from this troupe] that you couldn’t learn working in the Tamil film industry?
P.S. Vinothraj: You must be aware that I initially worked in a DVD shop, where I made contacts in the Tamil film industry. I started working with them on a couple of films. But I still felt that something my thoughts on filmmaking were incomplete. Then I met Murugu Boopathy, who is the director of Manal Magudi, a postmodernist theater troupe. I believed I could learn something here about filmmaking as well. So I worked with him on three of his plays, all based in magical realism and stuff. While I was working there I got a better sense of the visuals and how to keep the audience in tact while presenting the story. That learning was vital to getting Pebbles made. I give a lot of credit to the Manal Magudi Theatre troupe.
Initially I wanted to be a cinematographer, but in time I realized I had a lot of stories to tell and that I should write and make them.
Filmmaker: Is it difficult to get a film like this made in the Tamil film industry?
Vinothraj: When I wrote the script, I wanted to make it and I wanted to do it somehow. It didn’t matter if it ended up being a mainstream film or a pure cinema film, I just wanted to capture it how I had written it. I had a contact with a guy who financed films, so I met him and told him what I wanted to do.
Although he was hesitant because he wasn’t sure if it was mainstream and whether the film could be released in theaters or not, somehow I convinced him and he provided the initial funding. Although our limited finances were challenging, I managed to shoot the film with the budget allocated to us. The people who shot the film were all a group of friends, basically. The cinematographer, the editor, sound designer and live sound guys, all friends, so we didn’t discuss salary at all. We just wanted to make a good film. Once the shoot was completed, that was when the real challenges in expenses came. You have to spend a lot of money to get the final output. We sent a cut of the film without any sound mixing or anything to NFDC Film Bazaar and it was selected as one of the 26 films [that Film Bazaar chooses each year to present to global co producers, bankers, funders, sales agents and distributors]. Even still, the guidance to take the movie forward wasn’t there exactly. You need some mentor in place who has experience to guide you to festivals and theaters. So luckily I met a Tamil film director named Mr. Ram (Peranbu, Teramani), who saw some of the film. He wanted to meet later in Chennai, and when we met there again he really loved the film.
He believed it was one of the best Tamil films he’d ever seen. So he started to design things to make this film go internationally and get the recognition it deserves. Then we approached his friends who are mainstream filmmakers: Vignesh Shivan (Kaathu Vakuula Rendu Kadhal, Nanuum Rowdy Dhaan) and actress Nayanthara (Bigil, Imaaika Nodiga), who is one of the most prominent actors and regarded the latest Super Star of the South Indian film industry. They happened to be friends of Ram, and he showed them the film. They both loved the film and said they would support it in any way we needed them to.
So they made sure the film was properly financed and completed. They thought we’d hold onto the film a year or so, so that it could get into festivals. But when we started pitching to festivals the pandemic hit. [laughs] So it was a big challenge again. But the producers were willing to wait another year, it wasn’t an issue for them. Last August, or September or so, we sent the film to Rotterdam and the programmers immediately called us and asked for more details. The process went on and we were later informed it was selected for the Tiger competition. That was the happiest moment for the entire team. So that is how the journey started.
As you’re aware, there are multiple film industries in India. It’s a diverse culture and there are multiple languages, and every language has its own film industry and such. When people think of Indian film, they always think of Bollywood, but every other industry in India makes top notch films. I’m not saying anything against Bollywood. [Laughs] There are good mainstream Bollywood films and pure cinema films as well. The best part about the Tamil film industry is that the industry supports pure art films as well. You’re able to release such films in theaters and they get good responses from audiences. This is especially true in the South Indian film industry, Tamil and Malayalam. These two markets support good art films. The challenge is to find good producers, and in this case we had the right producers in place who were ready to wait for the film to get its due recognition.
Filmmaker: You mentioned you wanted to be a cinematographer first and I have some camera related questions. Were you shooting at higher frame rates or different shutter angles for certain scenes? The movements, especially in the beginning, feel so visceral.
Vinothraj: When I was growing up there were film shoots happening all around the villages. I’d go look at the shoots and see the camera operator on those 40ft cranes going up and down. Though it’s silly, that was what inspired me to become a cinematographer. “If I become a cinematographer I can go up and down like that whenever I want to.” But then I realized I had stories to tell.
I wanted to tell the story of Pebbles with minimal dialogue, and with body language, shot positions and the landscape. The landscape influenced all the shot positions and movements. I wanted the audience to feel like they’re walking with the characters in that landscape. When they walk, the camera is also walking, when they stop, the camera also stops. We choreographed every shot, every moment, before we shot the sequences.
Filmmaker: The camera seems to have a mind of its own. It breaks off to follow side characters and sometimes breaks away from the action entirely. How would you describe the perspective the film is shot from?
Vinothraj: The inspiration for this script came from an incident from my real life. My sister was kicked out by her husband and she walked 13 kilometers with her kid in both arms. I wrote a script to avenge my brother in law, and I wanted the father character to go through the physical torture of walking barefoot in that terrain, that hot sun. [laughs] So that also informed how I approached the camera. I hope this answered at least half of what you wanted from your question. [laughs]
Filmmaker: To your point, there’s a scene where the father character’s toe nail splits open later on in his walk, and the camera then takes on the POV of someone or something watching him. The father senses a gaze on him and turns toward the camera, but we never see who or what is behind that gaze. Is that you as the director, looking upon the character who represents your brother in law, laughing?
Vinothraj: In the villages there is a belief that if you walk in the very hard sun, there are evil forces with you. These are the kind of myths and stories that are quite normal in these villages. I grew up hearing so many stories about people who would walk alone places and be attacked by muni. In Tamil we call it muni, it’s like a ghost, or supernatural force that attacks people in the day. So while traveling, the father character gets into a different zone so to speak, and in that trance state has a visual of something like this watching him. But also, yes, I wanted him to hurt his toe. [laughs]
Filmmaker: You mentioned the heat dictated your camera choice. What camera did you choose? And did you have any other issues due to the heat/climate?
Vinothraj: Initially I started the shoot with a Canon C300. But I decided the whole film needed to be shot handheld or on a gimbal. But in India we couldn’t find a gimbal that was right for the C300. When I checked the footage, it didn’t have the rhythm that I wanted. So I had to stop the shoot for three to four days. We did a test shoot with several other cameras and finally zeroed in on the Sony a7 with CP.3 lenses. Every camera had its own technical issues with regards to the heat. [laughs] The Sony a7 was the camera with the least technical issues, so we had to go with it. Although I was able to get the rhythm I wanted, the biggest challenge was the heat. When we turned on the camera it would start to overheat. The air that was flowing was so hot, it felt like standing in a furnace or something. The camera started to overheat quite often. So we had to make sure to let it cool down. The time frame for shooting was only 10am to 2:30pm or so maximum, which was extremely hard.
Filmmaker: Karuththadaiyaan, who plays the father character, is the only person in the cast with an acting background. Why did it make sense that his character be the only one?
Vinothraj: I met Karuththadaiyaan through the theater troupe. Watching his acting, I’ve always seen a rage deep within him. He is also from the same locality. After I finished the script, I knew Karuththadaiyaan had to play the father. All the character’s rage, he had it in him naturally. Another very important aspect about him was his skin tone. That’s the skintone of those people in the village, the people who are dependent on farm work, and because of their dark skin, work as load men in the smaller villages nearby. There were just a few things I had to change about him in terms of acting, and I felt that having him on board would bring out the exact frustration and anger this character had.
You may not see on screen what the character’s occupation is, but while writing the script I decided a backstory for that character as such: This guy was a farmer. He’s not doing any farming now because of the drought, so he started working as a load man. I started learning about the characteristics of the load men, how they walked, their body language, how they light up cigarettes, like the father often smokes. I saw similar characteristics in Karuththadaiyaan. The only thing we had to master was the walk. We started going to the market and working with the load men to observe their body language and build that into the script. In the end, he was able to emote exactly the way I wanted.
Filmmaker: Had you worked with non-professional actors before? And what was that process like for you?
Vinothraj: After completing the initial script, I had no intention to use non professional actors. I wanted to work with professional actors. But then I went to fine tune the script. I went to the location and while I traveled the terrain and those villages I started to feel that the script demanded non-professional actors who were really raw on screen. So I got all non professional actors on board. If I used professional actors, it would have been a challenge to get them to walk on that terrain barefoot. So having people with experience walking those terrains barefoot and who are accustomed to the hot climate made that process easier.
The biggest challenge was getting these non-professional actors to face the camera. We can’t hide the camera, and they have to forget that it exists. That was achieved through a series of rehearsals over several months. After we made sure they got rid of their fear, then we started the shoot.
Filmmaker: There are vignettes of childhood joy throughout, why were these important to emphasize?
Vinothraj: Despite these people having lives filled with so much pain, they live in hope with such little happiness. Children’s lives are always beautiful. Although they have pain deep inside them about their family and their surroundings, they want to lead their life with happiness. One of the first things I saw when I was researching on location was the people hunting rats while small kids played in some leaves nearby. On the one hand we’re seeing something that is very uncomfortable for us to see, what they undergo to eat those rats for their survival. On the other hand there are kids living their lives to the fullest and their smiles inspired me to emphasize that with these scenes.
Filmmaker: There are some powerful cuts made decisively after many of the film’s long takes. What was your editing process like?
Vinothraj: As soon as I finished the script I sat with the editor (Ganesh Siva) and cinematographer (Vignesh Kumulai, Parthib). The three of us started working on the essence of the script. The editor also traveled on the set. I wanted to make sure he was also aware of how a shot was acquired, why a particular shot had to have its length. So these things were decided well in advance of the shoot. In the scene where the father goes to the in-laws house and has a brawl with them, I felt that if I brought in cuts it would bring in a cinematic mood. I wanted that to be a single-take sequence so that the rage and frustration of all the characters involved was clearly evident.
There were only one or two frames that we cut out that were part of what we had planned in advance. The rest was all on paper actually. I put where I would cut all on paper and the editor was also there on the spot. Everything moved in tandem.
Filmmaker: Considering these elements of your process, can you talk about how you came up with the scene on the bus where all but the sound of a baby crying dissipates?
Vinothraj: While writing the script I understood that that particular scene had to take place from the perspective of the mother who was holding the baby. So I worked with the cinematographer, editor, and also the sound guy simultaneously. I decided when writing the script that when the brawl happens the viewer will hear it from the mother’s perspective. But when the child starts crying, everything goes numb, and the crying is all that she can hear. She knows such things are happening around her, but her concern is her baby. She wants to console her. She can’t go fight with them, so she stops the bus in the middle of nowhere to bring the baby to an environment where she can be comfortable and at peace.
That scene happened magically after ten takes or so. I wanted a particular movement of the camera when the child starts crying. The editor, since he was on set, was able to see how we conceived what we had written in the script. The other challenge was the sound design. Since it was live sound, sync sound, everybody had to work barefoot. The actors, crew, and I worked barefoot, and at those temperatures our skin started tearing apart. [laughs] As soon as the shot was cut everybody had to run looking for their shoes. So I credit the whole team for going through that. Everyday someone on set started behaving like the father, even the DoP, the sound guy, and I, we started changing our behavior. I began to think what I wrote in the script was true. The surroundings, time and space evidently influenced our behavior, we became aggressive like the father.