Pebbles − Figures in a Landscape
26 January 2021
For each of the features in competition, IFFR asked a critic, writer, academic or programmer to write a short reflection in a personal capacity. The resulting series of ‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Srikanth Srinivasan shines a light on Pebbles.
There is a scene early on in P.S. Vinothraj’s first feature, Pebbles, that takes place in a town bus. Diverging from the story at hand, the director fixates on a series of objects that accompany the passengers: a marapachi doll, a yellow cloth bag, a new set of brass lamps, a CRT television, plastic water carriers. It’s the sort of sentimental detail, each item conveying a world of stories, that gives the film its lived-in quality. As the bus plods along the narrow road, someone smokes one beedi too much. A scuffle ensues, waking up a sleeping baby at the back and bringing the bus to a halt.
If these sensations of small-town transit are ostensibly wrought from experience, Pebbles supplements them with material ripped from the headlines. The film unfolds in parched stretches in the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Once there were rivers in these lands, but all that remain today are signs: empty water canals, drought-resistant vegetation, dying springs. And pebbles. The possibilities of farming having been practically exhausted, some families have resorted to hunting and eating rats.
Amid this bleak picture is the story of a father and a son. The man, an alcoholic, seethes with uncontrollable rage at his wife, who has left him. The internal movement of the film is closely coupled with the rhythms of this man’s quivering body. Despite the bottle, he walks briskly, his chest heaving, as his child trails far behind him in a mixture of fear and concern. For the most part, Pebbles is a horizontal film made of characters traversing the frame from left to right. As the man heads towards his in-laws’ place to find his wife, we also get a tapestry of scenes from the village in the background.
The child, in contrast, a mute receptacle to his dad’s violence, is also a force tempering this violence by his muteness. He wants his family to stay together. When his father sets out to board a bus back to his village to take it out on his wife, the boy tears up the wad of cash entrusted to him, forcing both of them to walk back home. As a collector of pebbles, he knows that this unforgiving landscape has a way of smoothening rough things. Sure enough, the long pedestrian voyage under the scorching summer sun does things to the man’s head, even if it doesn’t entirely cool it down. By the time he reaches home to down some water and food, the film too has settled into a sedate rhythm. Pebbles, then, isn’t as much a story of the terrain as it is a story by the terrain.
Even when it goes through familiar emotional beats, Pebbles manages to remain fresh, an important quality for a debut work. Vinothraj executes bravura sequences with serpentine camera movements, but he is also concerned with capturing a child’s confusion within a conflict situation. His film is about survival, about life in its barest details, but it doesn’t rule out the capacity for aesthetic experience: waving a balloon out the bus window, transforming dry leaves into a simulated rain shower, collecting feathers and pieces of a broken mirror. And pebbles.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a freelance film critic and translator from India, and author of the blog The Seventh Art.
‘Appreciations’ aims to encourage viewers − and filmmakers − at a time when there is no physical festival. Discover more short reflections on the features in competition.