Selling DVDs to directing India's Oscar entry, an interview with filmmaker Vinothraj

‘Koozhangal’, which tells the story of an abusive marriage through a child's eyes, is India’s official entry to the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
Koozhangal director Vinothraj in a checked shirt and sitting with red chairs behind him
Koozhangal director Vinothraj in a checked shirt and sitting with red chairs behind him
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His first feature film has been selected as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards for the Best International Feature Film. Director PS Vinothraj still can’t believe it, though he has been giving interview after interview about how he feels about the news.

“I never thought any of this would happen, even as the film went from festival to festival. Everything seems surprising and magical. We just wanted to make a simple and honest film,” he says, a big smile across his face. Koozhangal is the 10th Tamil film to be chosen as India’s official entry, but is distinct from its predecessors in the story it tells and the making. The film tracks the journey of Velu (Chellapandi), a young boy, who accompanies his abusive father, Ganapathy (Karuthadaiyan). His mother has left home, chased away by the violence that she has to endure at the hands of her husband. As they walk across the arid landscape – the film was shot in Arittapati, near Melur – the child shows his resentment against the father in various ways. Small resistances that burst out of his heart.

Why did Vinothraj choose to tell the story from the point of view of a child? “I have grown up witnessing such marriages, my sisters too have had such experiences. In our village, there’s a phrase for it – irundhu kazhichudu (loosely translated, it means stay and bear with it). They will say that the woman has no other choice but to stay in such a marriage for the sake of the children. The mindset of a child who grows up in such circumstances is affected. I too grew up in such circumstances. The child’s world views are formed by the violence that they grow up watching. They don’t have the maturity to process it at that age. I wanted to explore how such a child’s mindset would be. He has the playfulness of his age but he’s also aware of the tension that exists in the family. The mother could have taken the boy with him if she wanted to, but she wants him to stay where he is despite the chaos because she wants him to study. She doesn’t want him to turn out like his father. I also felt that telling the story from a child’s point of view would make it a more human story.”

Chellapandi as Velu

Vinothraj’s younger sister faced a similar situation some years ago and the incident left a deep impact on the director.

“Just like everyone else trying to make a film, I too had written a story and shown it to about 17 producers. But nothing worked out. My family was also going through a tough time. One day at about 5.30 am, my younger sister called up crying. She said that at around 1 am, she was beaten and thrown out of her home. This isn’t an individual’s issue, it also has to do with the circumstances of people’s lives. That’s what I’ve shown in Koozhangal too. It isn’t only Ganapathy’s behaviour that is like this. His behaviour is influenced by his social situation as well. I couldn’t do much at that time. I only thought that his son would one day grow up and question him. But that pain stayed with me. Cinema is all that I know and I thought of using it as a tool... to take some form of revenge. That’s why I wrote the story in reverse, with the father going in search of the mother,” he says.

The film also shows other women and their lives, impacted by male violence and aggression. It’s a kind of empathetic depiction that’s rare on the big screen. When did this awareness seep into his consciousness?

“It’s only when you ask me this that I’m thinking about it. I grew up in a big family, with several sisters. I saw these problems from close quarters all the time. I don’t know if the awareness came within me automatically. In the film, I haven’t shown the mother much but I have shown what her life is like through the experiences of other women. Whenever something happens, it is always the women and children who get affected,” Vinothraj says.

A still from Koozhangal

It’s been over 12 years since Vinothraj came to Chennai, chasing his dream to make films. He initially worked in a DVD shop.

“I wanted to become a cinematographer. I joined a DVD shop because many film industry people used to frequent such shops back then. It was very difficult to meet them otherwise. I worked as a sales boy and used to hand out my resume to film industry people who came there. That’s when I met Kishore, who was introduced through Nalaya Iyakunar Season 3. I went to work as assistant cinematographer in his film but ended up in the direction department. I didn’t want to let go of the opportunity, so I said ok. I also met director Sarkunam when I was working in the DVD shop and became an assistant director for his film Manjapai. That’s how my journey started,” he recounts.

Vinothraj hails from Madurai district, and the dry landscape with its unbearable heat is as much a character in Koozhangal as its people. It’s also why Vinothraj chose to cast mostly non-actors (all except Karuthadaiyan).

“When I started writing the story, I only had the actor who played the father’s character in mind. After I finished working on Manjapai, I worked as assistant director for two plays in Kovilpatti. We were 30-35 people and we travelled all over India. That’s when I met Karuthadaiyan. When I was writing the story, I thought it’d be good if he did the father’s role. It’s only when I went to the location that I realised that if I bring people from outside and make them act in that sun, it just wouldn’t work. The people had to be from there, they had to be used to the weather. I should say that it was the landscape that gave me this knowledge, it taught me how to make the film honest,” he says.

Vinothraj was sure that he wanted the film to be set in Arittapati, but he did not expect to gain so much insight into the story through the landscape.

“It’s a story inspired by real events in my family. If I write it just like that, it will be nothing but a self-involved rant... like a Facebook status message. It’s only when I went there that I had an epiphany. It’s not an individual man’s failing. The story was at first about that father’s flaws. It’s when the landscape entered the picture that I was also able to see how the environment influences his behaviour. The landscape became a character in the film,” he says.

Karuthadaiyan and Chellapandi as Ganapathy and Velu respectively

Vignesh Kumulai and Jeya Parthipan are the cinematographers of the film. Both of them are Vinothraj’s friends and people who understand exactly what he wants, he says.

“We had all stayed in the place over a year before we shot the film, so we knew what we were getting into. We had already worked on the shot composition and staging. We were using live sound, so we had already worked out a separate script for that. It was very easy to shoot it,” he adds.

Though Koozhangal tells a familiar story that happens all around us, it’s considered to be art house cinema while mainstream films that seldom carry any semblance to reality dominate the mainstream. As an artist, does Vinothraj feel frustrated by such divisions?

Laughing, he replies, “I never considered this to be a ‘festival movie’ when I made it. I just wanted to make a simple, honest film. At the most, we thought we’d send it to a few festivals and see if something clicked. If not, we thought we’d go to a few villages with the producer’s help and play it for people there... because it’s their story that we have told in the film. We only expected that much.”

It was at the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar in Goa that Vinothraj and his team met director Ram. The Peranbu director was so blown away by the Koozhangal trailer that he invited them to play the film for him in Chennai.

“We just had the raw footage at the time. But he still liked it a lot. He helped us meet 2-3 producers and director Vignesh Shivn and actor Nayanthara were among them. They really loved the film and came on board,” says Vinothraj.

With theatres in Tamil Nadu open with 100% occupancy from November 1, Vinothraj hopes that Koozhangal will hit the big screens by the end of 2021.

Watch: Trailer of Koozhangal

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