Why 'Koozhangal' is the right pick for Oscars

Why 'Koozhangal' is the right pick for Oscars

'Koozhangal' (Pebbles) will compete for the best film in the 'International Feature Film' section at the Oscars.

‘Koozhangal’ (Pebbles) stirred up a debate earlier this week when it edged ‘Sardar Udham’ to be India’s official entry to the Oscars. Directed by debutant PS Vinothraj and backed by celebrity couple Nayanthara and Vignesh Shivan, the Tamil film staved off other strong contenders like ‘Sherni’ (Hindi) and ‘Nayattu’ (Malayalam), to be the surprise choice.

Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Sardar Udham’, a biopic on Marxist freedom fighter Udham Singh, was favourite owing to its immense popularity post its release on Amazon Prime Video, a couple of weeks back. On the contrary, ‘Koozhangal’ hasn’t had a theatrical or OTT release. It’s a festival film that made the news when it won the prestigious Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in February.

People expressed dissatisfaction at the jury for snubbing ‘Sardar Udham’. They were further upset when a jury member, while explaining the decision, said that ‘the film projects India’s hatred towards the British. In the era of globalisation, it’s not good to hold on to hatred.’

Irrespective of the divided opinions and its eventual fate at the Oscars, ‘Koozhangal’ deserves a shot at the coveted prize. The 15-member selection committee, headed by Shaji N Karun, watched the film for around 14 minutes before unanimously making their decision.

The Oscars’ jury prefers narratives with global appeal. Films rooted in nativity stand a better chance in the stiff race. On the other hand, there is an overload of movies on unsung war heroes and they are at the risk of getting ignored at the Oscars.

‘Koozhangal’ is a personal story about the relationship between an alcoholic, abusive husband and his wife, who deserts him. The story is told from the viewpoint of their child. The father-son duo travels to the neighbouring village to bring her back. What happens during this journey forms the crux of the story.

The film doesn’t follow the traditional approach of a beginning and an end. Vinothraj has placed the film in and around his village Arittapatti in Madurai. The place is harsh with scorching heat, devoid of trees and water. Despite the country’s overall progress, Arittapatti remains very primitive. The film has only a couple of modern elements like the little boy watching an airplane in the sky and a stray puppy meddling with a can of Coke.

The landscape’s tough conditions are stunningly showcased. The sound design of the film is phenomenal, giving us the experience of living in such a place.

The story is inspired by the life of Vinothraj’s younger sister. Vinothraj came from tough beginnings. After losing his father at a young age, he dropped out of school to start earning for his family. Fascinated by films, he loved visiting shooting spots. He took up a job in a DVD store and got exposed to world cinema.

How ‘Koozhangal’ was made is a stirring story. Vinothraj struggled to complete the film due to a lack of funds. The team applied for the NFDC Film Bazaar in 2019 with a rough cut. It found a place in the Film Bazaar Recommends section.

In one of the Bazaar’s meetings, Ram, the popular Tamil filmmaker, was impressed by the trailer. He watched the film and persuaded Nayantara and Vignesh Shivan to watch it. They loved it and came on board as producers along with Yuvan Shankar Raja deciding to score the music. This film’s score is minimalist and makes the right impact.

Will this film stand the heat of the competition from biggies like ‘Compartment No 6’, ‘A Hero’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Titane’, ‘The Worst
Person in the World’? Only time will tell. For now, a small film made by a self-taught debutant making it to the Oscars is an incredible achievement.

(The writer is a software engineer and a film enthusiast. He is the consulting curator for ‘Cinema of the World’ section at BIFFES).

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