Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2021
The kinetic energy of walks that Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyan) takes in P. S. Vinothraj’s debut feature film, Pebbles (2021) is palpable from start to finish. He walks in rage. He walks to prove himself. He walks barefooted on parched hot land to resolve the crises of his own making. He walks to assert his manhood in patriarchy. He walks as a solitary figure on a mono-chromatic landscape. He walks ahead of his son just to show his bravado. Walking becomes his way of expressing anger. The act of walking is a striking and defining image of the film.
It is a particular kind of walk ignored in most of our thoughts on walking. It is not the awkwardly attractive walk of Charlie Chaplin. It is not a meditative walk cherished by Western philosophers. It is not a contemplative or mindful walk charted by the Buddhists. It is not a walk that defies the cruelty of the landscape in Béla Tarr’s films, nor a rhythmically framed walk of two-friends-in-a-crisis in Gus van Sant’s Gerry (2002). And of course, it not a romantic walk in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It is also not a walk that we have witnessed by millions of migrants and the homeless in the recent pandemic.
Ganapathy is a stand-in for patriarchy, a brutal system still so tender in its weak spots that it erupts at any act of provocation. His continued quarrels with his wife, and her temporary departure, turn his explosive anger into a frantic and bullish walk across the landscape. He drags his son, Velu (Chella Pandi) out of the classroom, borrows money from his gambling buddies, and gets into an argument on the bus with a passenger who objects to his smoking. The more he wants to show his strength, the weaker he appears. Defeated elsewhere, he must show his anger against those more vulnerable than him: his child, wife, and the family.
But when it comes to the landscape, which has endured the constantly blaring heat from above and no sustenance from below, Ganapathy’s strength means little. He must walk, his body defiantly trying to conquer the merciless heat and the harshness of the land. Vinothraj gives a memorable walk for cinema, an often-unspoken act of humbling of the man’s power and arrogance. Ganapathy walks in rage from his village to the bus stop, then to his wife’s family because he thinks they are hiding her, and back to his village—again on foot, because his son tore up the bus money. Appearing senseless in his temper, he walks ahead of his young son, hurling expletives, “A few steps and I will be in my village,” he says. Cinematographers Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib inhabit Ganapathy’s energy. The camera observes, walks, runs, stops, and takes a distance from the movement to absorb his energy. The sounds of footsteps (sound design- Hari Prasad) become the instrumental accompaniment to the soundscape of patriarchal rage walking. When the camera takes Velu’s perspective, Ganapathy looks like a miserable creature from behind, a body pulling ahead without any conviction, a man of small value and respect just pushing ahead because he can.
The frames of Pebbles are bleached brown-yellow, a village-brown of Western Tamil Nadu where the land is parched and population sparse. Brief scenes of the impoverished rat-eating family, near-monochromatic, emphasizes the harshness of life’s conditions. In one scene of ironic misery, the daughter in the family flashes a smile on her face as she thinks her grandmother caught the rat. It is an uncompromising life. That is true about every other element in the narrative where tradition is synonymous with patriarchy. Ganapathy’s in-laws, angry and desperate as they are, do not want to kill him because it would make their daughter a widow. The old symbols still matter. Men will have their ways. They are drunk and loud, physically and verbally abusive, and arrogant. The final scenes are particularly powerful as we realize that Ganapathy’s crude power is made possible by his wife’s life-giving abilities, preparing food and fetching him water. It is a contrast so strong that it makes Ganapathy and all he stands for petty and pitiful.
For the most part, Vinothraj constructs the film as a man’s drama. He wants this to be a man’s drama. Why ruin the elegance of a man who exposes the emptiness of his arrogance! When the film does return to women, their existence is dignified in still images, pauses, and elusive appearances. We see elements of a kitchen; a burning stove, a boiling pot, smoke bellowing out of a window. Here, the color returns in objects. Velu imagines his mother at a distance approaching him. This vision is out of focus, but the image of her red saree and the green bushes around her make for a striking contrast to the arid landscape in which much of the film moves. The woman passenger in the bus sits under a tree holding her baby. The colors of her clothes and the skin of the child show animated life against the deadening backdrop of the world around them. In the final scene, the landscape looks pretty, signs of life in the line of trees behind them. Clearly, the film juxtaposes the man’s world, uncompromising and dehumanizing, against the life-sustaining place of women.
Velu has to navigate this world. When his father insists on getting on the bus to see Velu’s mother, the boy makes sure to get toys for his little sister who he hopes to see. He avoids sitting next to his repulsive father on the bus, and tears up the money his father gave him. While for most of the film, Velu quietly absorbs his father’s rage, in a small act of defiance and pleasure, he picks up a broken glass to reflect the sun’s light on father’s back, as if to mark his uselessness. Velu is trapped in this world of patriarchy that insults and hurts his mother. His brief respite comes in the moment he looks up at the sky to see a plane behind the clouds, and he captures his hopes in the form of pebbles, which he collects on endless walks from and to his village. The scene with his sister is almost magical, as color and life return again to the image, far away from the world run by fathers like his.
Pebbles is a remarkable work of filmmaking that already won the Tiger award at Rotterdam. P. S. Vinothraj’s portrait of life in rural Tamil Nadu paints the portrait of patriarchy as much as village life of survival in remote areas. Though Richard Brody calls it a picture of “poverty and rage,” its strength is in observing moments of tenderness and finding poetic potential in even the roughest conditions. The most cherished moments in the film are images of the elusive figures in the background, the color in the frames, and the editorial interventions in the nuanced use of sound, interspersed still images of the the kitchen, and the final scene that capturing the pitiful conditions of life in a quiet flourish.