Pebbles, about an alcoholic man and his little son, is set in a drought-struck village near Madurai . (Image courtesy Rowdy Pictures)
Pebbles, about an alcoholic man and his little son, is set in a drought-struck village near Madurai . (Image courtesy Rowdy Pictures)

Finally in focus, an India we rarely get to see, says Anupama Chopra

Two niche films, Bittu and Pebbles, are making us proud abroad. They deserve to be seen widely here at home too.
UPDATED ON FEB 20, 2021 07:31 AM IST

Jallikattu, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s masterful takedown of masculinity, did not make the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature Film. From the little I know of Lijo, I suspect that the Malayali maverick is too busy to care. His new film Churuli recently premiered at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Meanwhile two other films made a mark internationally. Karishma Dev Dube’s Bittu made it to the Live Action Short Film Oscar shortlist — no mean feat, considering 174 films qualified in this category. And the Tamil film Pebbles (Koozhangal) won the top prize — the Tiger Award for best film — at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam (one of Europe’s most prestigious festivals, with a determined focus on indie and experimental cinema).

Both Bittu and Pebbles are films about India’s invisible people, the poor and marginalised. Bittu introduces us to an eight-year-old girl in a Himalayan village, who studies at a government school. She’s fierce, rebellious and unafraid. Even when punished, her eyes flash with defiance. But the tragedy that envelops her is too grotesque for her to process.

Karishma, making her directorial debut, tells the story with skill and economy. She doesn’t underline the social commentary. The film presents the horror of inequity with a clear, unblinking eye.

Bittu, a short film that is on the Oscar Best Live Action Short Film shortlist, is about a girl in a Himalayan village enveloped by a tragedy too grotesque for her to process. (Image courtesy Indian Women Rising initiative)
Bittu, a short film that is on the Oscar Best Live Action Short Film shortlist, is about a girl in a Himalayan village enveloped by a tragedy too grotesque for her to process. (Image courtesy Indian Women Rising initiative)

As does Pebbles, also made by a debutant, Vinothraj PS. Pebbles is set in Arittapatti near Madurai. The land has been withered by drought. There is abject poverty. The dusty paths, homes baking in the sunlight and struggling human beings all seem to be on the verge of boiling over. A bleakness envelops everything. Even a close-up of anklets on a baby girl’s feet is imbued with melancholic poetry because we know the hell that awaits her as she grows up.

Pebbles is the story of an angry alcoholic, Ganapathy, and his little son Velu, who must both walk some 13 km, in the heat, to bring Velu’s mother Shanti back after she ran away following an altercation. Ganapathy is consumed with rage. Velu is desperate to save his mother from Ganapathy’s abuse. The walk doesn’t alter their circumstances but something shifts. Vinothraj leaves us, not with hope, but with a glimmer of a fragile peace.

Vinothraj’s frames (DOPs Vignesh Kumulai and Parthib) have a stark beauty. The film was shot on location and the actors are non-professional locals. The camera moves when the characters do and each visual is designed with geometric precision. There is a scene in which women are cooking rats that will haunt me for years. But like Karishma, Vinothraj isn’t shrill or sentimental in his storytelling. This is life at its harshest. It is what it is.

The international success of these films has propelled them into the spotlight. Both also have strong backers — Bittu is the first project of a new women’s collective, Indian Women Rising, created by producers Ekta Kapoor and Guneet Monga and writer and director Tahira Kashyap. Pebbles was produced by actor Nayanthara and filmmaker Vignesh Shivan. I hope that these films get widely seen and distributed in India. This is cinema we can be proud of.

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