Mari Selvaraj Interview: Vadivelu suffers once again, but this time, we don’t laugh

Director Mari Selvaraj, whose Maamannan is all set for release, speaks about political motivations, animal metaphors, rural films and world music, and of course, reimagining Vadivelu…
Mari Selvaraj Interview: Vadivelu suffers once again, but this time, we don’t laugh

There are filmmakers who make their careers by belonging to a system, and then, there are those who come in like a storm, sweeping everything in their wake. Mari Selvaraj is only two films old, but you can already feel the impact of an auteur at work. His cinema is strong and informed in its politics, and imaginative and compelling in its craft. His is a film voice for the oppressed, booming in its conviction and irresistible in its persuasion. He arrived with Pariyerum Perumal; he broke ground with Karnan; and now, he’s expected to stretch boundaries with Maamannan.

Here's the filmmaker in conversation about his third film that’s getting released today:

A lot has been said about your comments on Thevar Magan. You have said that your own views about cinema, including this film, have been reshaped over the years, based on your evolving understanding of society.

The decision to work in director Ram’s office has transformed my views about literature, cinema, and society. Had I chosen to work with another individual, I might have continued to remain the star-struck kid who cared only about ‘commercial’ cinema. When I watched films like The 400 Blows and The Battle of Algiers, I began to see my life differently. I began to realise that my suffering wasn’t occurring in a vacuum; I saw that my life was inextricably linked to Tamil society and her people. This realisation drove me to create the art I do. The success of art, mine or anyone’s, isn’t about the number of people who experience it. It’s about what changes within them.

While the quality of your first two films, Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, provides enough justification to feel excited about Maamannan, it also helps that you have cast Vadivelu against type.

I have always associated him—and the innocence in his roles—with my appa. You will see that my films will always speak of the parent-child relationship. I cannot imagine a story which doesn’t explore this relationship. At a time when I had no friends, no social life, my appa and amma travelled with me, protected me, ensured that I didn’t get into trouble… I didn’t realise this at the time, but now, I see that they have always radiated majesty. As a child, I kept asking why my appa, who was a therukoothu kalaignar, wasn’t like other fathers, but I now realise that when my parents protected me at the cost of coming across as meek, they were being braver beyond my imagination. You see this quality coming across even in Pariyerum Perumal—when the protagonist realises that true valour isn’t about beating up people. It’s about empathy; it’s about integrity.

So, you will know how much it means to me that Vadivelu plays a version of my father. Think about the comedy tracks that he has done. He suffers, he cries, he gets beaten up, he gets neglected and trampled, he’s isolated… His reactions, however, make us laugh. I have always seen him as one of us, a common man at the receiving end of injustice. I might have laughed, sure, but my tears weren’t entirely of laughter. In fact, I have a portrait of Vadivelu and Ilaiyaraaja in my bedroom. I consider it a personal milestone to have worked on a film with him. In Maamannan, he suffers like he always does, but I’ve changed how we react to it.

Was it hard to extract a subtle performance from Vadivelu, given all the years of theatricality and exaggerated responses?

Thankfully, I’m so attuned to his facial features that I can rein in even the slightest excess in performance. Every actor, every individual, has a unique nature. A good performance is when the actor responds to a fictitious situation as they would in reality. For me, acting isn’t about transforming into another person. It’s about throwing yourself into unfamiliar situations and responding honestly. With Vadivelu, I only had to disassociate him from his cinema version. I wanted to see the real Vadivelu.

While your life has moved you from village to city, your films continue to be about rural life and the oppression there. Does urban life not interest you as much—or are there just too many stories from your village to be told?

I don’t see a distinction between both. Urban residents keep travelling to their hometowns. Chennai can never be my home. For me, it’s like the school we went to as a child. We might spend a lot of time there, but it’s not home. No person can afford to avoid their rural origins. Even those who are born and die in the city must connect with their roots sometime. This is why the psycho-thrillers in Tamil cinema fail to impress me. It seems to me that our psychopaths and sociopaths are still derived from European cinema. We must dig into our layers. We must reconnect with our origins.

While I see tremendous political and artistic value in your films, some continue to dismiss your work as ‘caste cinema’. How must this simple dismissal be tackled?

Each person has their own prism through which they experience art. I shouldn’t forget that I too was prone to simplistic conclusions, that I too experienced films through its stars, that I too fought over actors and flung stones at theatre screens. Patience is paramount when you make the films I make. If Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan transformed only a dozen people, that’s quite all right. Perhaps ten years later, that number might increase. If certain sections dismiss my cinema without acknowledging its craft value, I must process it as a challenge. I must learn to make my art more accessible. I must put in more work to win over my detractors.

So, you don’t really get frustrated when positive change doesn’t quite seem to happen swiftly?

Not at all. So many well-meaning leaders have strived for years at the expense of personal freedom and security. If they expected to see swift change, they would have lost all spirit. In comparison, my work is just making movies. Even if someone feels progressive only during the duration of my film, that’s good enough for me.

And then, there are those who believe, based on their experiences, that caste discrimination doesn’t really exist anymore.

There’s a world outside my experience, right? My own exposure to world cinema, for instance, is not even a decade old. If it’s true that we connect only to films that resonate with our life and experiences, why did I cry after watching The 400 Blows? Why did I spend a sleepless night after Hotel Rwanda? I cannot force someone else to empathise with the characters of my cinema. They must show the interest to search for such truth in the world. Art exists to fuel your desire to search for and understand people and ideas that you may otherwise never encounter or acknowledge. My life took me to director Ram, who, in turn, opened the doors and windows of learning for me. Perhaps something akin to this might happen to others as well, so long as they are open to being moulded.

AR Rahman’s evocative song, ‘Jigu Jigu Rail’, is fascinatingly Western for a film like Maamannan set in a village.

Rahman sir expected that he would have to do an album like Kizhakku Cheemayile. He was surprised when I asked him for a track that might sound somewhat like Bob Marley’s ‘Zion Train’. I have always been clear that my stories are not meant only for those who are already familiar with them. I want someone in the US, China, or Russia also to experience and understand them. Our most effective tool when taking local stories to the world is music. Just like I enjoy ‘Zion Train’ so much, I trust that someone somewhere will enjoy ‘Jigu Jigu Rail’ and Maamannan.

I also dearly enjoyed that memorable shot of Udhayanidhi Stalin holding a piglet at the end of the trailer.

(Smiles) The pig is probably the most insulted creature in our society. I love it a lot; my family has raised pigs. I grew up hurting from the realisation that people branded us for raising pigs. People brand you based on the animals you co-exist with. They attach their opinion about a pig to their opinion about someone who raises it. The pig, like all other animals, is a regal, far-from-docile creature in the wild. We tamed and controlled and eradicated the true qualities of many animals for our benefit—and now, we insult them for being pale versions of what they once were. For me, the eyes of different animals speak volumes. That’s why I use them a lot in my cinema—be it the dog in Pariyerum Perumal or the donkey in Karnan. Maamannan is, in fact, a story about pigs.

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