Watch my films to understand my politics: Mari Selvaraj interview

Mari Selvaraj with actor Dhanush

Only two films are needed to stamp his brilliance—'Pariyerum Perumal’ and ‘Karnan’, both made strong statements against the caste system prevalent in Tamil Nadu. Here is a young filmmaker who says he can make films for his entire life with the stories in his village alone. For Mari Selvaraj, his politics are his films, and he never shies away from telling Dalit narratives and caste politics through his films.

From Puliyankulathu to Chennai

He has been director Ram’s assistant for 12 years. And he will tell you proudly that he is the last among those assistant directors who worked with a director for the longest time. Mari’s journey in cinema was always filled with unpleasant experiences. He hails from a small village in Tamil Nadu called Puliyankulam which lies on the banks of the Thamarabharani river. That is also the meeting point of Thoothukudi and Thirunelveli. Even though his father used to perform sami attam in temples, Mari grew up as an atheist. He comes from a family of farmers.

Despite being studious, he was always branded as an eccentric teenager in school for his unconventional thinking. His most distinct childhood memory was watching films of MGR, Sivaji Ganeshan and Rajnikant which were screened in their village at night. Though cinema aroused curiosity and awe, he soon got bored of clapping and hooting for the same kind of cinema over and over again. Mari wanted to get out of the village. He couldn’t finish law and even tore his law college certificates before leaving for Chennai. He only had Rs 400 in his pocket and he knew no one in the city. For 7 months he roamed around the city doing odd jobs, sleeping at petrol pumps. His family had no idea about his whereabouts.

Seeking a job

One night Mari Selvaraj reached director Ram’s office at Saligram asking for a job when he was busy with his first film, ‘Katradu Tamizh’. Ram later admitted in an interview that he was astonished by the 22-year-old Mari’s life experiences. He was hired as an office boy, but it didn’t take much time for Mari to win over Ram’s trust. He became Ram’s confidante and associate in no time. For someone who had migrated to Chennai for subsistence, he is grateful to Ram for helping him find a job as a filmmaker.

One of his favourite hobbies was to watch the countless movie DVDS stacked in Ram’s office. More than a passion for cinema, he was excited at the prospect of watching anything he loved. This was a big deal for a boy who had only had a free Television set at home. When he felt he needed to update himself to have a conversation with the cinema intellectuals in the office, he started watching a lot of world cinema. He watched a lot of films without knowing the language, some he watched fully and a few others he fast-forwarded and finished.

His most unforgettable day was watching the French black and white film, ‘The 400 blows.’ When he started narrating the strange feeling of watching the film to Director Ram, he spoke about his village, people, unpleasant experiences, and caste discrimination. Ram said there were so many prospective films one can make from his life alone.

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Mari Selvaraj in a discussion with Dhanush

Chidambara cinema

Ram told Mari to understand literature before plunging into cinema. He was told to read as much as he can. ‘Chidambara Ninaivvukal’ was the first book Ram handed over to Mari. It was the Tamil translation (KK Shailaja) of Malayalam’s favouirte poet Balachandra Chukkikadu’s autobiographical work ‘Chidambara Smaranakal.’ Mari was overwhelmed to read the life story. Mari admits that the book inspired him to narrate his own life experiences with the same intensity.

When he read more he started drifting towards writing. He had this habit of jotting down little stories. Later his ‘Marakkave Ninaikirai’ which was about his life experiences was published in Ananda Vikatan.

Though he initially wanted to act, when he experienced cinema at close quarters, he felt he needed to be behind the camera. After that, he started cherry-picking films to watch. From ‘Cinema Paradiso’ to Uthiri Pookal’, ‘Mullum Malarum’ and ‘Pasi’, he started watching films more closely. He assisted Ram in ‘Katradu Tamizh’, ‘Thanga Meenkal,’ ‘Tharamani’ and ‘Peranbu’. It was while working in ‘Peranbu’ that he started his pre-production work for his first film.

Pariyerum Perumalum’ with Pa Ranjith

Mari Selvaraj first wrote the script of ‘Karnan’, which he made after ‘Pariyerum Perumalum. He had titled it ‘Pandyarajackal.’ Since it required a bigger canvas and budget, Ram advised him to go for a smaller film. He was the one who suggested placing it in the milieu of his law college. So he started writing ‘Pariyerum Perumalum’ as a simple story and finished it in 6 months.

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Mari Selvaraj

Pa Ranjith who always appreciated his writings in Vikatan used to say that they should make a film together and discuss story ideas. When he heard the story of ‘Pariyerum Perumalum’ he offered to produce it under his Neelam Productions.

Though his family came to know that he was doing films, they had no hope of him making it in cinema. They were wondering how a poor boy without any cinema background will make films. It was when he shot his film in the village that they finally accepted that he had become a filmmaker. Even then they were wondering what kind of cinema he was making.

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Mari Selvaraj with Dhanush, Lal

Every caste had a separate slang

Mari Selvaraj says his cinema is what he has experienced in his life. The images are not something he has visualized. In both ‘Karnan’ and ‘Pariyerum Perumalum’ 70% of the life shown are what he has experienced. ‘Karnan’ is based in the backdrop of a police witch hunt in the Kodiyankulam Dalit village in Thoothukudi in 1995. They shot ‘Karnan’ amid rising Covid cases. A lot of scenes were chopped during censoring which affected the overall quality of ‘Karnan.’

When Tamil cinema has placed the issue of casteism which leads to honour killing as just an issue in Southern Tamil Nadu, Mary Selvaraj showed the audacity to bring it toward mainstream cinema. Mari strongly opposed brushing it aside as Thennaka pictures and that they only Tirunelveli Slang. Mari Selvaraj says Tirunelveli does not have a slang in general. There is a slang for each caste, and the caste can be identified even from the speech.

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Mari Selvaraj with wife, daughter

Films with content reign supreme

He dedicates all his awards and success to Ram, whom he describes as his “director”. After watching ‘Pariyerum Perumal’ for the third time, Ram was ecstatic and told him—“You have exceeded all expectations. You have won.”

Mari Selvaraj's specialty is that he is able to gain huge acceptance and box office success while presenting socially relevant issues. In that regard, Mari says that Ranjith is his guide. He has already started shooting for his third film, ‘Mamannan’ featuring Udayanidhi Stalin, Fahad Fazil and Keerthi Suresh in the lead roles. A Rahman is the music director. 

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