Much like Arun Karthick’s urgent Nasir (which won the NETPAC Award for the best Asian film at IFFR last year), Pebbles (presented by Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan) is an effective portrait of a country told through what has become of its inhabitants. But unlike Karthick, who depicted the growing intolerant India, Vinothraj trains his lens elsewhere, providing a snapshot of the other India, left so far behind and so carelessly like it does not exist.
A pervasive feeling of parchedness runs through the entirety of the film. Water, in this part of southern India, is found only in plastic containers. This aridity is aggravated with the unrelenting motion of the father and the son as they trudge along 13 kilometres stopping only at the sight of a broken mirror or a nail. But Vinothraj is preoccupied with the barrenness of the land as well. The camera always trails the two lone figures but, shot at wide angles, they seem part of the whole and not whole of the part. Even though it is the length they have to traverse, the film keenly emphasises on the vastness they are in. The distance covered is highlighted by the change in the landscape around them: giant rocks give away to wild trees till a snake appears. Their unfaltering pace remains, depicting their familiarity with it all.
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Stories about hinterlands are mostly understood through events. Plight and ignorance of inhabitants register only in manifestations. Extent of their maladies is revealed through the depths of perverse acts. Vinothraj departs from such episodic linear arrangement in his directorial debut, portraying instead a circularity peculiar to life. In an interview prior to the premiere, he had spoken about Pebbles and the characters with affecting ownership: “It is a film about my people and my place, their anger, their frustration, their hunger and their thirst.”
Throughout its course, his familiarity — but mostly awareness — about people whose lives he is documenting is on full display. At several points he teases our gaze, trained to gauge affliction through action, egging us to deduce a statement out of a scene. When Ganapathy breaks into a fight with a stranger in a bus, the abrasiveness of men is felt in the horror on Velu’s face. The only one to get down from the bus is a woman with her infant. The rest remained as if the noise which frightened her and woke up the sleeping child was regular din for them. Later, when Ganapathy barges in at his wife’s maternal house and unleashes a fresh fit of rage on not finding her there, he gets involved in another scuffle with his brother-in-law.
It is tempting to imagine Pebbles to be about an unremorseful abuser posited in a land of men who know no better. This feeling is pronounced by the sense of foreboding the film opens with, making us anticipate a resolution in the form of a brutal climax. As Ganapathy and Velu keep walking under the scorching sun, the rising heat serve as a constant reminder of his flying temper. And yet, as we navigate with them noticing another family catching and eating rats at the side, a couple riding a bike —the man hesitant to be driven by his wife in public view— our markers of understanding this story through a definitive theme falls through. All of them are part of a story and the story is about all of them. They are not included to be exploded into motifs later. They just exist like the father and son do. Like they do in life.
Pebbles then is about a day in a village where the events are not recreated to be driven to a conclusion. They are captured the way they are and Vinothraj showcases the gift of his craft and assuredness of his original voice by asking for our participation and not sympathy in return.
But it is the concluding shot, haunting in the way Vinothraj refuses to look away, and in extension, forcing us to see what could be the reason for the running emotional sterility in the characters: the land’s desiccation has seeped into the people, withering them from the insides. This is also where he perforates our cover of judgment with pointed shards of circumstances, revealing the anger, frustration, hunger, and thirst of his people with touching empathy.
The laborious, primal sound of their sustenance lingers long after the end credits roll, as if suggesting their story may have ended but their lives will continue even after we stop looking. Only the pebbles will keep count.
(Pebbles premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam)