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Anna Hoffmann: As far as I know, the starting point for your film was an incident in your own family. Could you speak a bit about how you developed this into a script and a film?

PS Vinothraj: Yes, such occurrences were very common in my childhood, and I just internalized them growing up: “that's how things are.” But once I became a filmmaker, there was another event in our extended family. That's when I started exploring this idea, of how these foolish beliefs are fed into people when growing up. Doing so, I realized that it’s not an isolated incident in one village in the south of India. Rather, it happens all across the country. And women are usually the centre of such rituals and practices. This is when I felt it deserved to be made into a film.

Even as we speak, people are either making plans to visit seers for this ritual of exorcism, or they're on their way back. It’s happening every minute.

Barbara Wurm: The protagonist Meena is silent for most of the film. How did that develop?

PV: In situations such as these in real life, the girl is usually silent and hardly allowed to express herself. It’s everyone around the girl who constantly speaks about her. And this is one of the reasons why I tried to portray Meena as a silent character. But I also think silence can convey adamance, more than overt arguments or fights. Meena has made up her mind, and no matter what the people around her do or say, she is steadfast in her thoughts and desires. I wanted to visually convey her grit and resolve, and that’s why I wrote her that way. Her silence is a defiant, adamant kind of silence.

The violence that they cause is an unwitting, innocent kind of violence.

Anna Hoffmann: We were wondering if the English title THE ADAMANT GIRL is the literal translation of KOTTUKKAALI, or there's some other meaning to the word.

PV: In Southern Tamil Nadu, the word ‘kottukkaali’ is a dismissive term used to describe women, young and old, who do or say what they want. It’s very much related to the sense of an adamant girl.

AH: Speaking about the form of the film, our selection committee liked that it is a road movie, and that you don't exploit the more melodramatic aspects of it. How did you make this decision?

PV: The intention was to closely follow people who have a certain belief system. And the goal was not to demonize or falsify them. The violence that they cause is an unwitting, innocent kind of violence. And the idea was to follow the characters in their world and observe their behaviour and beliefs, before finally arriving at a statement. That's what led to the form of the film, which basically follows the characters in their everyday behaviour, speech and rituals.

BW: Some of the reviews of your debut film, KOOZHANGAL (2021), noted that you avoid seeking the audience’s empathy in a direct way. With this film, I have a feeling that it’s very similar, that the less emotionally wrenched we are, the greater is our shock at what we’re seeing. Could you elaborate on your approach in working with affect?

PV: This is a very important question, so I want to be detailed in my response. I’m very happy that you’ve been able to engage with the film so closely. In India, we have this general impression that if you have many characters in a “festival film”, you would have trouble communicating with an international audience. But KOTTUKKAALI is a film about a group, its basis is mob mentality. In reality, in such a situation, a girl would never go alone or with one of her relatives to this ritual. It’s always the entire family, it’s always the group. So the group was very important to the construction of the film. And I didn't want music or excessive drama to come in way of my handling of this group. Even more than with KOOZHANGAL, I was conscious about not wanting to provoke the audience’s sympathy in any way; that wouldn’t have been honest to the story. As I said earlier, the idea was to witness the characters as they are in their world. I’m relieved that a film with so many characters has been able to communicate its ideas.

AH: That's interesting. I also wanted to ask how you managed to create such a convincing group, because you are working with professional and non-professional actors at the same time.

PV: It’s always a challenging thing. The lead actors, Soori and Anna Ben, are professionals, so they understand the process. But every other actor is either my relative from back home or people who were involved in the incident that I mentioned earlier, which was the starting point of the film. We would bring them together, explain the story, the characters and their state of mind during the incident, and then rehearse with them so that they remain themselves when performing. But with too much rehearsal, there is this danger of their acting turning plastic and artificial. So you have to be really careful and monitor that their natural way of being isn’t affected. I know how they are in real life, and the challenge was to bring that into the film frame.

SS: How did you cast Soori, who is a very established comic actor, against his type?

PV: People always have different shades in real life. And that's what I wanted to bring out of Soori, who's a very famous and very experienced comic actor. I went to him and said, “forget you are an actor of twenty years, forget that you work in the film industry in Chennai. Imagine you are a regular guy still in your hometown of Madurai, and react the way he would.” And because Soori is a consummate professional, he was able to get into Pandi’s character and see the grey shades in it. I felt that casting him against his comic image would create the necessary impact here at home.

BW: What is the white thing that Pandi has on his neck?

PV: The white stuff is actually a home remedy for a hoarse throat, a paste made of slaked lime and sugar. When somebody shouts themselves hoarse, you apply this paste so that they regain their voice. I wanted to imply that there had been a big dispute before even the film has begun, an argument so intense that Pandi has lost his voice. Now he's recovering, and that's where the film begins. The white stuff conveys this history behind the story.

BW: There is this scene in the film that quotes a song from Tamil cinema. Could you talk about that?

PV: The popular song used in the film, from a movie called KIZHAKKU CHEEMAYILE (1993), glorifies the relationship between a girl who has just attained puberty and her maternal uncle, a relationship that is very important in Tamil culture. [Editor’s note: Traditionally, a girl is ‘promised’ for marriage to her maternal uncle or his son, as is the case in KOTTUKKAALI.] There has long been a tradition of maternal uncles bringing gifts to their niece when she attains puberty. But this particular song has exalted the practice to such a degree that there is an immense social pressure to conform. Whether you have the means or not, you have to present these expensive gifts in a public procession, with this song being played over and over on loudspeakers. And because you spend so much on the girl through the years, there is a kind of implicit understanding that she belongs to you, that you have rights over her. This song plays a part in that indoctrination as well.

I’d like to mention an incident from my own life. When my niece attained puberty, I had to buy gifts for her. I didn’t have the means to do that, so I borrowed money. During the procession, in which the song was repeatedly played, I had to walk past the house of my debtor, who was standing there staring at me. Everyone around me was proud of me for bringing the gifts, but only I knew my predicament. In using this song, I wanted to bring out this pain and humiliation of those who aren’t well off, but forced to spend money for this ritual.

This film is about the internal conflicts of people who have been told growing up that they inherit this rich legacy of kings and goddesses

BW: It’s clear that there is such a tremendous social pressure on the individual. But I also sense a lot of pressure on the younger generation from the wider society. Is that also part of the film and how you perceive the world?

PV: KOTTUKKAALI is about how social relations are reproduced and maintained. Generation and cultural pressures are already contained in this. The character of the young boy is intended as a parallel to the male protagonist, Pandi. This boy, who isn’t yet inducted into these traditions, is still innocent. As he grows up, he will observe the people around him and learn to imitate them. Even though times change, there is investment on the part of society to keep these traditions and social relations alive. From generation to generation, the gifts that are presented increase in value. But the tradition itself doesn't go away, no matter how much we wish for them to.

AH: We get a sense that the man that Meena loves is from a ‘lower’ caste. I was wondering if social class also plays an important role.

PV: If the person she is in love with were a poor man from the same caste, the family wouldn’t have reacted as dramatically. It is precisely because the girl loves a person from a Dalit background that that they panic. Pandi’s resentment is that the girl who has been promised to him is in love with a person from a lower caste. It wouldn’t be so had the boy not been Dalit. In the film, we don’t see the man she’s in love with, or learn anything about him. I find this concealment, this elision, powerful.

SS: Nature is so central to KOTTUKKAALI, but the green, hilly landscapes that we see are very different from the dry, barren vistas of KOOZHANGAL. How do you see nature in this film and the role that it plays?

PV: There is an ancient anthology of Tamil poems called “Kuṟuntokai”, written two thousand years ago. In it, there is a poem in which the lovelorn heroine laments that, while she withers away thinking of her beloved, her family believes she is possessed, and are taking her away to be exorcised. When I realized that this was written two thousand years ago, but saw the same thing still happening today, I understood the responsibility of the film. That poem is set in the hilly or mountainous region of southern Tamil Nadu. And that is the same landscape that the film was shot in.

SS: We talked about how challenging it is to make a film, especially for a western audience, about a large group, and to make people understand the relationships. But at the same time, it’s perhaps also crucial to understand the symbols, such as the cluster of masks we see behind a motorcycle. What were your thoughts about employing the symbols, on the one hand, and on the other, about the poetry of your filmic strategies, including the bonding between the human and the animal, as in the scene in which a young girl takes away a ferocious bull? Is it a poetic element or a symbolic one? Or is it just a necessary plot element?

PV: I don't see them as symbols as much as a tool to psychologically connect with the audience beyond language and cultural barriers. The masks we see on the motorcycle are objects to ward off evil spirits. For me, these images were a way of entering into the belief system of the characters. The young girl with the bull – I see her as a reflection of Meena, who must’ve been like her in her childhood, somebody who's grown up in this kind of an environment that has made her strong-willed. The name Meena, by the way, is a short form of Meenakshi, who's the presiding goddess of the region of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. And Pandi is also a diminutive of the Pandya kings who ruled Madurai. So this film is about the internal conflicts of people who have been told growing up that they inherit this rich legacy of kings and goddesses. Both the children in the film, the girl with a bull and the small boy in the rickshaw, are reflections of the protagonists, Pandi and Meena.

AH: We like the elegant way that you end your film. Without giving too much away for people who may not have seen it, would we be right in seeing in it some hope for Meena?

PV: You're right, I'm happy that you got that! In reality, that would be an extremely rare thing to happen, but because we are weaving a fiction around it, because it’s a film, I wanted to give that rare hope.


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