KOLKATA: PS Vinothraj’s Tamil film ‘Koozhangal’ (Pebbles) has been chosen as the Indian entry for the Best International Feature Film category of Oscars 2022. The decision was announced in Kolkata on Saturday by director Shaji N. Karun who chaired the jury which also comprised Ananya Chatterjee, Indraadip Dasgupta, Arghyakamal Mitra, Ruma Sengupta, Sumit Basu, Pampally, AVM K Shanmugam, P Sukumar, Naganna, G Bhageeradha, Vipul Mehta, Ravindra Jadhav, Umamaheshwar Rao and Navaniat Singh.
An overwhelmed Vinothraj told TOI, “The selection of this stature has given me the faith and belief that I had taken the right decision in making a film which I wanted to. It has also given me an added responsibility to continue making good cinema. Being a school dropout and working from the age of ten, cinema always fascinated me and I had the opportunity to watch the film shootings happening in and around my village (near Madurai, Tamil Nadu), where I was brought up.”
A still from 'Koozhangal'
Initially, Vinothraj wanted to be a cinematographer but ended up being a sales person at a DVD shop in Chennai for survival where he got acquainted with people in the Tamil film industry and was exposed to world cinema. “Subsequently, I worked for five years as an assistant director in movies and an assistant director in a post-modernistic theatre group called Manal Magudi,” he said.
When Vinothraj decided to make an honest and simple film, he wanted to make one without any compromises. “My script was such that I thought it wouldn’t get budgets from mainstream production houses. In order to retain the essence of the characters, I wanted to work with people who had experienced what I had written. Slowly, others got associated with the film. Most of them, including actors and technicians were debutants. Working with them was both a blessing and a challenge. Finally, I got the support of Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan who took over the production and helped to complete the film. They also instilled in me the belief that the film would appeal globally and decided to back it up with a festival run before a theatrical release.”
A still from 'Chhello Show'
The 13 other contenders were ‘Chhello Show’, ‘Sardar Udham’, ‘Mandela’, ‘Nayattu’, ‘Laila Aur Satt Geet’, ‘Bridge’, ‘Sherni’, ‘Shershah’, ‘Kagaz’, ‘Aata Vel Zaali’, ‘Toofan’, ‘Godavari’ and ‘Karkhanisanchi Waari’. After conferring a token of appreciation to Bijoli cinema’s Suranjan Paul for hosting the screenings for the 15-member jury panel, vice-president of the Film Federation of India Firdausul Hasan said, “Due to the pandemic, we got a lesser number of entries this year. But all the films were good.” FFI secretary general Supran Sen was happy that a physical screening for the jury panel could be done without any glitch in Kolkata even during the pandemic. “I am glad that we got all the logistic support in Kolkata for this,” Sen said.
Shaji pointed out that the selection process has become “more complex” since the Best International Feature Film is also eligible now to compete for the Best Picture at the Oscars. According to him, ‘Koozhangal’ has been made on a “lesser budget” but has a lot of “cinematic achievement”. “Cinema is not an idea of investment of money. Tools now are ready to give clarity on technical excellence but that they don’t guarantee great cinematic experience. Good cinema always documents true emotional interpretations. Time will not kill the memory of watching a good cinema. That’s how films of Satjyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen have stayed on,” Shaji said, pointing out how ‘Pather Panchali’, despite being criticized for exporting poverty, remains one of the best films in the world.
Finally, the cinematic experience offered by ‘Koozhangal’ which is very rooted in Indian ethos gave it an edge over other strong contenders like ‘Chhello Show’, ‘Laila Aur Saath Geet’ and ‘Sardar Udham’. “There were no dissent notes in choosing the Indian entry,” Shaji added.
Comparing the other contenders, Indraadip Dasgupta said, “I felt ‘Laila Aur Saath Geet’ synergized well the seasonal change with the metamorphosis of human existence. But the film has an overdose of music. It could have been less verbose at the end. From the overall focus on all the characters, it turned into a biopic of a pretty woman at the end. ‘Chhello Show’ is an out-and-out wannabe film and the approach is very manipulative. The film has tried to tick all the boxes to cater to the international market and ended abruptly.”
Arghyakamal Mitra described ‘Koozhangal’ as a film with a strong cinematic value. “This film touches upon a human chord which transcends the here and the now. ‘Chhello Show’, in contrast, is an interesting film with apt camerawork. However, it has elements that tries to cater to the Western audience. That includes a sense of visual treatment. There are complexities which are treated in a facile way. This easy treatment will appeal to the western audience but has little cinematic excellence,” Mitra said.
A still from 'Sardar Udham'
Sumit Basu has liked ‘Chhello Show’. “This film expresses the romanticism with cinema. I felt it is kind of an Indian version of ‘Cinema Paradiso’. I don’t have anything to say with the film trying to appeal to the western audience. This film is a biopic of sorts of the maker and that treatment seemed organic to me. Many have loved ‘Sardar Udham’ for its cinematic quality including camerawork, editing, sound design and depiction of the period. I thought the length of the film is an issue. It has a delayed climax. It takes a lot of time for a viewer to feel the real pain for the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh massacre. ‘Laila Aur Saath Geet’, for me, was a very lyrical film. But among all these, the Indianness depicted in ‘Koozhangal’ is most real. I loved it right from the time I watched it on the first day of screening,” Basu said.
‘Sardar Udham’, Dasgupta said, is a well-made production with brilliant cinematography that lives up to international standards. “But it is a little lengthy and harps on the Jallianwala Bagh incident. It is an honest effort to make a lavish film on an unsung hero of the Indian freedom struggle. But in the process, it again projects our hatred towards the British. In this era of globalization, it is not fair to hold on to this hatred. ‘Koozhangal’, in contrast, is a truly Indian film with a global appeal. It has no agenda attached to it. It is the most honest film among all the contenders,” Dasgupta said.
Ananya Chatterjee described ‘Koozhangal’ as “pure” cinema that is very Indian. “The camera work and story-telling have blended in so well with the narrative. There is a saying that you say a lot when you say nothing at all. This film, with very few dialogues, expresses a lot that a viewer who doesn’t understand Tamil will also have no problems connecting with. The only language in the film is that of cinema,” Chatterjee said.
A still from 'Laila Aur Saat Geet'
Sengupta agreed saying that film easily demonstrates how silence can speak to the audience. “You don’t need a subtitle to understand it. The film is minimalistic and depicts a beautiful relationship between a father and a son while touching upon issues like globalization and water scarcity. In my views, ‘Koozhangal’ is a powerful film,” she said.
Vinothraj is overwhelmed by the reaction of the jury members. “I have watched movies of Ray and Sen. From the greats, I have learnt that simplicity, realism and honesty are integral to making good cinema. It is so touching to receive such feedback from people I have admired and have been inspired by,” he said.