In Indian filmmaker P.S. Vinothraj's debut feature, Pebbles (2021, Tamil: Koozhangal), the only noise preventing silence from engulfing most frames is the thumping sound of footsteps. There's a lot of walking in the film, barefooted on arid terrains in the scorching heat. Most of this walking (or stomping, rather) is done by Ganapathy (Karuththadaiyaan)—an abusive alcoholic whose wife has left him for obvious reasons.
The film follows Ganapathy and his son, Velu (Chellapandi), whom he picks up from school and forces to accompany him on a bus to bring back his estranged wife from her mother's place. After reaching his mother-in-law’s, he comes to blows with his brother-in-law and learns that his wife has decided to return and is en route to their home. Enraged, he vows to kill her in retribution upon getting back home. Conscious of the imminent domestic violence, Velu tears up the cash handed over to him by his father, leaving them with no other option but to trudge all the way back to their village.
Pebbles is inspired by an incident in Vinothraj’s sister's life, who was kicked out of the house by her husband late at night, compelling her to walk more than eight miles to her parents’ home while cradling her baby. Vinothraj makes Ganapathy walk on the same sunbaked, drought-stricken, rough landscape of Arittapatti, Tamil Nadu, on which his sister traveled. Perhaps this is his imaginative way of exacting revenge on his brother-in-law.
Despite the skeletal plot, minimal dialogue, and a runtime of barely over an hour (excluding the credits), Vinothraj packs in acute details of enormous socio-anthropological significance. In the opening sequence itself, he visually establishes the age-old gender-inequitable patriarchal structure of rural India. We see static wide shots of Ganapathy walking through the village lanes, with women doing household chores in the background. Their hard work is contrasted by the entitled men of the region, who while away their time by sleeping, boozing, and gambling.
Last year, Pebbles became only the second Indian film to win the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, after Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga in 2017. Like its Tiger Award-winning Indian predecessor, almost every frame of Vinothraj's film simmers with toxic masculinity raring to explode, lending even the long stretches of silence and static compositions a palpable latency. The bidi-puffing Ganapathy with alcohol running through his veins and rage in his eyes is always a scuffle away, be it on the bus with a fellow passenger or at his in-law's place or thrashing his defiant son at whim.
Pebbles juxtaposes these barbaric impulses with the calmness and resilience of women, who are subjugated by the double brunt of male chauvinism and the punishing sun. For them, walking miles to collect water and enduring domestic abuse is part of their daily routine. On the bus boarded by Ganapathy and Velu sits a woman (Banu Priya) in the backseat with her baby, eyes full of emptiness and a face betraying no emotion. She alights from the bus in the middle of nowhere (the desolation captured in an overhead drone shot). Who is she? Has she also left her abusive husband, or is she enduring the same fate as Vinothraj's sister? Like the many ellipses in the film, it is up to the viewer to draw their inference. The filmmaker also digresses to a family of nomadic women that ingeniously captures rats and roasts them for survival. Maybe they, too, have walked out on the men in their lives, or vice-versa.
Amidst the grimness and cruelties of impoverished lives, the filmmaker steals a few moments of playfulness by focusing on the younger characters. On their way back home through the barren mountainous landscape, Velu finds a shard of mirror and uses it to shoot hot beams of sunlight onto his father's back and on rocky boulders. A young girl from the aforementioned nomadic family they encounter tosses helicopter seeds in the air, their whirling descent in slow motion accompanied by her delighted giggles. A puppy joins Velu, who brings it home to play with his baby sister. Vinothraj uses music sporadically, accentuating the lyrical impact of the scenes they underscore. However, the greatest triumph of Pebbles lies in its deeply observational visuals. Be it static, kinetic, POV, or aerial shots, the camera captures the pulse of the land and its inhabitants from varied perspectives. With several long takes and the raw, effortless performances of all characters, Pebbles feels more like a docudrama than a fictional tale.
Despite eschewing sentimentality throughout its runtime, the movie's poignant long ending scene, which reveals the painstaking ordeal of the village women in fetching even half a mug of water, is understatedly heartbreaking. And to think of what they must endure at home from their beastly husbands is a harrowing enough thought. With Tamil cinema celebrities like actress Nayanthara and director Vignesh Shivan coming on board as producers, the minuscule-budgeted Pebbles gained a certain level of recognition in its home state of Tamil Nadu. If the art-house and indie circuit needs to soar higher in India, then it would need the support of more influential figures from the mainstream to champion pure, unadulterated cinema that shines a light on repressed lives and marginalized stories from the overlooked corners of the country.