Like a gradual waxing of the crescent moon, the Tamil film, Koozhangal (Pebbles in English), India’s official entry for the ‘Best International Film’ category at the 94th Academy Awards, has given a sense of hope to bag another nomination.
The 85-minute gritty storytelling by P S Vinothraj, filmed in the extreme arid northern part of Madurai, would be competing in the said category along with other 95 entries chosen from 100 countries. The final five nominees will be announced in February early next year.
If one looks at the history of Best International Film Awards, there is a conspicuous presence of countries like Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Iran and the Soviet Union. Multiple nominations from these countries over the years reflect their nuanced film culture.
Though India’s first Oscar entry was Mother India in 1957 — the first of the only three films to be nominated at the Academy Awards, the other two being Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan (2001) — the country has, however, failed to make a buzz in pre-Oscar decisions. While Mother India lost to Federico Fellini’s The Nights Of Cabiria, Salaam Bombay could not take the winner’s spot and lost it to Cinema Paradiso and Lagaan to the more political and somberly mounted No Man’s Land.
However, there had been distinct instances of being nominated Timbuktu (Mauritania) in 2014 and winning, like Black and White In Color (Ivory Coast) in 1976 and No Man’s Land (Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 2002. None of these films originated from a ‘filmmaking legacy’ or culture in the conventional sense. Believably, their nominations and consequent wins have only encouraged filmmakers around the world to craft more internationally-compelling stories.
Koozhangal stands a chance, therefore, not by fluke but by its sheer grit of independent cinema. Its rawness is hard to ignore, as was in its preceding Salaam Bombay. Both films, coincidentally, have been directed by debutant directors, rooting their narrative in the stories of the underdogs.
Unlike Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, which had multiple characters, with the story taking place in Bombay (now Mumbai), Vinothraj’s Koozhangal has few and is set in the harsh landscape of rural India. To sum it in short, it is a story of an abusive husband who is on a mission to bring back his wife, with his young son in tow.
The perilous journey — literal and metaphorical — reflects on the father-son relationship and also reveals a complex social structure. In many ways, Koozhangal resonates with Salaam Bombay’s sentiment of breaking free. While Krishna, the chaipao (a nickname commonly used for a runner boy working in a teashop of Mumbai) in Salaam Bombay dreams of escaping brothels and his life in the slum, Velu in Koozhangal tries to get away from his existing life too.
Both boys live in abject poverty and are pushed to the margins, cinematically representing the unheard voice of India. The rustic looking Koozhangal or Pebbles’ selection leads to a surer possibility of an Indian film finally reaching the Oscar nominations, 20 years!
Salaam Bombay went on to win several awards, beginning with Camera d’Or at Cannes, followed by a host of other accolades, including a Golden Globe, which many in the American film industry rate more highly than the Academy Awards.
Koozhangal also has won Tiger Awards at one of the world’s most critically-acclaimed festivals, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). The film fest may not be as glamorous as Cannes or Venice, but it is one of the best platforms for the filmmaker to showcase their works.
But even if Koozhangal would not have got an award in its haul, it would still be in a win-win situation as, after a long time, a movie on Indian soil shows reality unabashedly. This is what matters for juries of international awards — a universal story told with empathy.
And if they cannot relate to the characters or the mood, they always recognise the cinematic language through which the story is crafted; just as they did notice the ‘brilliance’ in South Korea’s first-ever nomination, the winner of Best International Film Award, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite last year.
(The writer is a filmmaker and author of the recently-released of Banaras Of Gods, Humans And Stories)