'We didn't expect the film to be recognised at this level; we focused on making an honest and simple film.'
'We didn't have any expectations even like being appreciated at festivals.'
For debutant director Vinothraj PS, it is a surreal moment to have his first film Koozhangal represent India at the Academy Awards, 2022.
The Tamil language drama follows an alcoholic abusive husband who, after his long-suffering wife runs off, sets out with his young son to find her and bring her back.
After being a festival favourite and travelling to several international movie galas like the Shanghai International Film Festival and Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Koozhangal was announced as India's official entry in the international feature film category at the Oscars by the Film Federation of India.
Starring newcomers Chellapandi and Karuththadaiyaan, the feature titled Pebbles in English has previously won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in February 2021.
Vinothraj said he is overwhelmed with the love coming the film's way and expressed gratitude to the jury members who selected his film from among the 14 other movies.
"It is like three years of effort is paying off now. We didn't expect the film to be recognised at this level; we focused on making an honest and simple film. We didn't have any expectations even like being appreciated at festivals, including Rotterdam," the 33-year-old director tells PTI over the phone from Madurai.
"I am overwhelmed and so is everyone in the team. We are all excited and emotional. The actual journey has started now, we need to make sure we create enough chances to be in the final nomination. We have started discussions and are planning out things."
Born in a village near Melur town of Tamil Nadu's Madurai district, Vinothraj said his love affair with films began after he started visiting the sets of movies that were shot in his native place.
"I wanted to be in the chair of the cinematographer. That's how I developed interest in films," the writer-director said.
But the tough times during childhood forced him to start working at an early age.
He did several odd jobs, including working as a salesperson at a DVD shop in Chennai, where he was introduced to world cinema.
"I would see world cinema films almost every day of Majid Majidi, Stanley Kubrick, among others and I understood what pure cinema is.
"I worked at that shop thinking it would help me to get some contact points in the industry and then I can assist someone and start working. Soon I joined director A Sagunam and worked on a couple of his films. Then after some time, I started writing the script."
In 2018, Vinothraj began working on the film, produced by Tamil star Nayanthara and film-maker Vignesh Shivan.
The movie stems from the director's personal experiences: One of his younger sisters was chased by her husband from his village to hers for 14 km after a quarrel ensued between the couple, he said.
"People here have so much frustration in their lives because of the drought and lack of opportunities, it is reflected in their families and relationships. The male patriarchy existed very severely because of this frustration," he added.
The film is set in a village called Arittapatti near Melur and the director started filming in the scorching heat of May 2019, he shared.
Vinothraj, who looks up to veteran directors Balu Mahendra, Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, said the location and timing of the shoot for Koozhangal was as crucial as the story of the film.
"The film has three characters, one is father, the child and the landscape. All these terrains were well off with agriculture. There was no problem with water. Later, it succumbed to drought and led to huge social imbalance in the life of these people. This is what we wanted to address," he said.
But shooting in real locations came with its own set of challenges.
The director recalled how the cameras would often get jammed due to extreme heat and how the entire crew had to walk barefoot to get the pulse of the story right.
The movie was partially complete before the COVID-19 pandemic struck but the team needed someone to take over the entire production.
In their search for a collaborator, they knocked on the doors of the NFDC Film Bazaar, a platform created and organised to encourage collaboration between South Asian and international film communities.
"NFDC had invited director Ram, who won a National Award in 2013 for his movie Thanga Meengal, as a guest for one of the lectures. We met him and told him about the film, which he loved. Then Vignesh Sivan and Nayanthara saw the film and they took over the production as they believed in it," Vinothraj said.
After having a festival run of about a year, the director said they were toying with the idea of releasing Koozhangal around December. However, the film might get an early release.
"We believe with releasing theatrically, we should be able to create a market for other such films," he added.
"This (nomination for the Oscars) is something huge. The pressure is not much though we are glad to be recognised. It is a good feeling."