PS Vinothraj on ‘Koozhangal’ and the growing space for parallel cinema in Tamil

Filmmaker PS Vinothraj discusses the making of ‘Koozhangal’, his debut film which won the prestigious Tiger Award at the recently-concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021

An alcoholic, abusive father Ganapathy (Karutthadaiyaan) and his son, Velu (Chellapandi), are on their way to the neighbouring village to bring back the wife-mother, who has fled the home. A scuffle breaks out between Ganapathy and his in-laws, forcing Velu to tear up the wad of cash to get back at his father. They trudge their way back in the midst of scorching heat.

Through their laboriously endless walk, PS Vinothraj paints a stunning yet bleak picture of the lives; their anger that arises from the inability to break out of their poverty-ridden state, in a drought-hit village in Arittapatti, Madurai.

Vinothraj admits that the film came from a place of anger. Mined out of an incident that happened to his younger sister, whose alcoholic husband shut the doors on her, making her walk back over 13 kms to her village with a toddler in arms, Vinothraj calls such incidents “an everyday occurrence” in his village.

Also Read: The Hindu’s review of Koozhangal

“She knew that I was making her story. I was conscious not to hurt anybody involved because I knew my sister and her husband would end up together again. She has seen the film and she really liked it. When I showed the rough cut to the old women of our village, they reacted in a way that gave me the most satisfaction. I am not sure if folks at Rotterdam got the film, but those grannies did,” says the filmmaker.

Edited excerpts:

What are your earliest memories of cinema?

I remember visiting the film shoots that were happening in Madurai in the 2000s — from Ghilli to Paruthiveeran. At that age, what fascinated me the most was the jimmy-jib camera that was carrying the cinematographer. I would say the shooting atmosphere was what drew me into cinema.

You get to see a lot of images around Madurai that tell you a certain story. Its vastness can be divided into three: the barren landscape that you see in Koozhangal, the main city, and the part that leads to the Western Ghats. Now when I look back, I think these images kindled an interest to try and pursue cinematography, which I couldn’t afford to.

Later, when you saw these films set against the backdrop of Madurai, were you satisfied with the portrayal of the city in mainstream cinema, given that the first image that comes to mind, when you think of the place, is men in veshti with sickles?

Those films were telling a story by using Madurai as a narrative device, so they were catering to the demands of the story. But only when I made Koozhangal did I realise the difficulty in capturing the realness of the milieu. For instance, there are a lot of expletives in my film. I was concerned about what the censor board would say. But films like Paruthiveeran or Aadukalam were able to achieve the realism without these peripherals.

Was there a film that left you with a deep impact?

I started frequenting cinemas when I was working in Tiruppur. Moreover there was nothing else to do. Cinema was our escape from reality. A film that affected me the most was Ram sir’s Kattradhu Thamizh. I couldn’t come out of its impact for days and I remember sporting an unkempt beard and started wearing glasses [like the character played by Jiiva]. Bala sir is another filmmaker I look up to. During that period, these alternative filmmakers working in the mainstream space were my go-to people.

You seem to have learned the craft of cinema by watching films, when you worked in a DVD shop in Chennai. Is that a fair assumption?

Yes. I used to watch random films; sometimes by suggestion. That is how I discovered filmmakers like Majid Majidi, Abbas Kiarostami and Nuri Bilge Cylan [of Three Monkeys]. But there is one filmmaker who shook my core. I was at the International Film Festival of Kerala and the crowd was queuing up for this particular filmmaker: Tony Gatlif. I learnt the art of storytelling from him. He has been an influential figure for me.

Apart from watching films, I began sharing my resume to filmmakers who dropped by the shop. That is how I met Kishore [of Nalaya Iyakkunar fame], with whom I have worked in over nine shorts.

Filmmaker PS Vinothraj  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

You come from a different school of thought and director A Sargunam comes from another. How did your sensibilities match?

I wasn’t assisting Sargunam sir, but was working for his production venture, Manjapai. Getting an opportunity itself is a huge deal in cinema, so I tried to learn whatever I could from them. One of the first things that crossed my mind while working on Manjapai was: should a film require this much of a crowd? Can’t it be made with two or three people, like in Iranian cinema? But I have to thank them because it was a lesson on the other side of cinema.

Was Koozhangal supposed to be your debut work?

No. I was trying to make another film that had three landscapes. I like to tell stories through landscapes, but I couldn’t convince producers. I made a short, Subway, to convince people that I had talent. Four years back, my sister had to face a similar experience like in Koozhangal. I finished the first draft in nine days.

There must have been very little writing involved, given that Koozhangal derives its strength from visuals.

The script came from an emotion. Since it was more descriptive, I figured out my shot divisions at the writing stage. I wasn’t very impressed with the first act and the film begins from the second.

Could you elaborate?

My first draft had more details. It began with a fight that breaks out between Ganapathy and his wife, Shanthi, forcing her to storm out of the place. The next morning, the man wakes up to see an empty house, realising the absence of his wife. He sees the son leaving for school, as if nothing happened. They take a bus to bring back the wife-mother. When I wrote the script, all this was there. But I had deliberately removed that part and wanted to focus on their journey.

So, the thambi character we see in the film…is that you?

(laughs) No. When such incidents happen, you can’t blame one person. There are a lot of factors you need to consider. By making this film, I thought ‘what if’ my brother-in-law went through a transformative journey like Ganapathy and something changed from within.

The filmmaking standard is world-class for someone who never went to a film school…

Maybe because I approach everything with emotion. What truly was transformative was when I worked in a theatre group called Manal Magudi in Kovilpatti. It is a post-modern troupe and Muruga Boopathy is the director. There was one particular play that they staged across the country. It had no dialogues and everything was communicated through action. I was fascinated by the way they used the space and their body movements. My knowledge on the film language came from, I believe.

From my exposure to world cinema, I was able to understand the meaning of a shot and how to create a mood. I took my entire crew to Madurai and stayed there for over a year-and-a-half. When I went to actual locations for Koozhangal, those landscapes gave me the shot divisions. In fact, each of the landscape told me to present the story in a certain way. It was the gift that kept coming.

Perhaps that explains why landscapes are part of the film’s larger design.

If you have to understand the people of Arittapatti, you first need to know these landscapes around them. They are like a character. I knew from the very beginning that these images would hold the film together.

Koozhangal unfolds on one of the hottest days of the year. Yet, it has some stunning images, like the closing shot, wherein you show a close-up, a mid and then a wide. It is devastating. You seem to have composed the shots with clinical precision.

That is one of the reasons why I wanted my crew to engage with Nature. There is silence but also a mood. Everything was part of the screenplay, which made it easier for us. Even the shot you mentioned, it should have ideally be in reverse — in a film language. It should have begun with a wide. But the belief that the old lady has in that scene, is the belief I had on this film.

Of course, we have to talk about that 12-minute long take…

(laughs) I was very clear that the camera shouldn’t cut in that sequence. Had I cut that scene, it would have become emotionless. By holding that scene for so long, I was able to present the life as it was. It was a difficult sequence to execute because ours was live-sound and my crew were all newcomers.

There was actually a scuffle that broke out in the neighbouring house while we were shooting. That sequence took us over seven days. We rehearsed for four days and shot for three. You cannot keep the entire village under your control for that long. But, as you said, it had a purpose.

There is a tiny smile that escapes Chellapandi’s face and there is something really stylish about Karutthadaiyaan’s walk…

That is how Karutthadaiyaan [who is a theatre actor] walks in real life, too. Chellapandi must have had a hard time dealing with arakkan (devil) like us. There were instances where I asked him to ensure that he doesn’t cross the character’s metre. My biggest grouse is, we could only document 40 percent of the life that we saw in Arittapatti. Since it was shot in sync-sound, it was not just Ganapathy and Velu who had to walk barefooted, but us too. By the time the shoot got over, most of us were channelling our inner Ganapathy.

At what point did Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan step in to present the film?

We were initially associated with Learn and Teach, a production company. But the pandemic kept delaying the project. Seventy percent of the film was done and we were looking for a co-producer. That is how we approached NFDC Film Bazaar by showing a rough cut. We couldn’t get the desired support.

And that is where we met Ram sir. I told my assistant that Karuppusamy [a deity] has come in the form of Ram and we have to make use of him. The moment he saw the trailer, Ram sir got involved and gave us hope. He believed in the project more than anybody.

The cycle completes, right?

Yes, it started with Kattradhu Thamizh and ended with Koozhangal. He kept putting a word about my film. That is how Yuvan Shankar Raja sir came on board and that is how we got the backing of Rowdy Pictures.

On social media, there were talks on Vignesh Shivan and Nayanthara becoming the face of Koozhangal and not the filmmaker.

Imagine the outcome, had Ram sir and Rowdy Pictures not happened. This film would not have seen the light of the day without their support. So far, I have only gotten heartfelt appreciation from filmmakers, be it Ram, Vignesh Shivan or Vetri Maaran sir. That is truly a blessing.

You have won the Tiger Award and Arun Karthick’s Nasir won the NETPAC award for Best Asian Film last year. Do you think the scope for parallel cinema is widening in Tamil?

Yes. It is partly because digital filmmaking has broken all barriers. Filmmaking has become easy now. The luxury that we have today is what some of the mainstream voices wished they had. Even with the compromises, they have produced great films. That is a far bigger achievement I would say.

When can we possibly expect Koozhangal in theatres?

Now that the film had its world première at Rotterdam Film Festival, it has to travel the Europe side. We are trying to see if we could monetise from the festivals. Then, it has to be screened at the International Film Festival of India, Goa.

All things said, it should arrive sometime in July/August. When I met Soori [actor], one of the well-wishers of this film, he told me that we should book a special show for the grannies and women of our village, excluding men. I concur. After all, Koozhangal was made for them.

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