Interview
The director of ‘Pariyerum Perumal’, Pa Ranjith’s first feature production, speaks to TNM on his journey, cinema and politics.
Mari Selvaraj

After 12 years in the Tamil film industry, Mari Selvaraj has finally made his own film. Pariyerum Perumal, produced by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions, will mark his directorial debut.

Now 32, Mari Selvaraj traces his love for cinema to the days he spent in his mother Papa’s village, Puliangulam, in Thoothukudi district. Hailing from a farming family, Mari’s brothers and sister were keen to go to school and get an education.

Mari, however, had other plans.

“The people of that village were so passionate about cinema. Cinema was everything to them. Cinema was entertainment, cinema was politics. Cinema was life,” he recalls.

The young Mari would dance to cinema songs; he was the star who would perform at celebratory events in the village.

“The people would keep telling me to go and join films. But they also knew that cinema was a distant dream. So, I joined law college. But once I did that, I felt I had to try my luck in cinema. So I left the course and came to Chennai. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. I worked here and there, doing odd jobs for a while and somehow ended up with director Ram,” he says.

Welcome to Kollywood

The year was 2006 and it was then that Mari Selvaraj’s initiation to the world of cinema and what goes on behind the screens began.

“I didn’t go to become a director,” Mari says, with a laugh. “I wanted to become an actor. I wanted to dance. It was only after I joined Ram Sir that I thought I do have the capacity to become a director. That my life experiences have given me something to say. He saw that ability in me. That’s when I started to read, watch more films.”

As Mari learnt more, he became convinced that his work was behind the camera, not in front of it. He worked with director Ram on three films – Kattradhu Tamizh, Thankameenkal and Taramani.

Mari with Kathir

In between shooting schedules, Mari also found time to fall in love. He met his wife Divya, an English teacher.

“She is a huge influence in my life. We were in a relationship for seven years when I was an AD. It’s only been a year since we got married. She travelled with me in my journey. She waited for me till I made myself and married me in front of everyone. Her love has been my greatest strength,” he says.

Along the way, he also began publishing stories in Ananda Vikatan, including the Marakkavey Ninaikiren series. When he felt he was ready, Mari took the plunge. Within six months of getting his script ready, he became a director and the film was shot in a hectic 47 days in the sweltering summer.

On Pariyerum Perumal

Pariyerum Perumal is about two young people – played by Anandhi and Kathir – who study at a law college, like Mari once did.

Asked if the story is inspired by his past experiences, Mari says, “More than inspiration, I’d say it’s a platform built by my experiences. All the stories in the world happen to everyone. But it’s only when that story is placed on a certain platform that it becomes interesting. The law college setting is such a platform. It was a familiar one from which I could weave in characters and experiences. But it’s not my personal story.”

The title Pariyerum Perumal comes from the name of the god who is worshiped by people of all castes in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, says Mari.

“We consider Pariyerum Perumal to be a source of motivation. There are many in my family who are named Pariyerum Perumal, as in my village. I’ve always felt it’s a forceful name. So I had decided much earlier that if I ever make a film, the hero would be called Pariyerum Perumal – and then I decided to keep it as the title as well since the story of the film is a biography,” he shares.

Shooting with Karuppi

A hauntingly beautiful song from the film was launched a few weeks ago. Titled Karuppi, the black and white song mourns the death of innocents around the world. The stark visuals show people from different walks of life carrying a black dog’s head.

The dog features prominently in the film’s poster too. So, who is Karuppi?

Mari Selvaraj says, “Karuppi is at the core of the story. The whole script was developed around her. It is on the word ‘Karuppi’ and the dog that my story stands. I’m unable to explain it, but when you watch the film, you’ll see Karuppi’s footprint throughout. All through the film, you’ll be able to feel the dog. That’s how I’ve treated it.”

Mari with Karuppi

Karuppi, the movie star, is Mari Selvaraj’s brother’s dog in real life.

Why do people in the Karuppi song carry the dog’s head around? What does the metaphor stand for?

Mari Selvaraj says, “I see the dog’s head as a symbol of suffering and separation. There are many children who die without knowing why they die. You cannot carry a dead child around, you can only bury it. When we have a certain pain within us, we carry it around wherever we go. Whether we’re speaking on the phone or travelling, the pain stays with us. It is this pain that the dog’s head represents.”

The trailer of the film has several shots of Karuppi, one of which has actor Kathir lifting the dog up in affection. The warmth in the relationship between man and animal shines through without a word being spoken.

Mari Selvaraj explains how he shot these scenes: “Since Karuppi is my brother’s dog, she was always with me. I made children from my place act in the film, as the people who are following the dog. So Karuppi was familiar with everyone. She was friendly with Kathir because he was with me. He was dressed like a person from my village, so it wasn’t like a shooting spot for the dog. Not just that shot, there are many such visuals where you’ll see the emotional bond between the dog and the actor. I don’t think anyone in Tamil cinema has captured it to this extent.”

The film’s cinematographer, Sridhar, shot the scenes with a gimbal camera because Mari was keen to keep things as close to reality as possible.

Karuppi is now a mother with two puppies.

“She gave birth soon after we released the Karuppi song,” Mari says.

On his cast and crew

Comedian Yogi Babu is also part of the cast. Mari says that the actor has played a memorable role in the film, as Anand.

“He has done comedy but it’s not the kind he usually does. I’m sure this will be an important film in his life. He modified his style of comedy to suit my film,” he says.

Mari with Anandhi

Santhosh Narayanan, who has worked with Pa Ranjith from the beginning of the latter’s career, has scored the music for Pariyerum Perumal.

“He was busy with Kaala, so I went ahead and shot the entire film. He watched it and really liked it. He showed me how music could make a small film into a big one. He hasn’t used the usual rural music that people put for such films, he wanted to make it universal. You can see this reflected in each song,” he says.

In fact, Mari says that the film language in Pariyerum Perumal will be distinct from what we usually see in non-metro cinema. He adds that this can be observed in editor Selva’s work as well as art director Ramu’s vision.

On cinema and politics

The trailer of the film which released recently, begins with ‘Educate, Organise, Revolt’, echoing BR Ambedkar’s words. It also resonates with Kaala, Pa Ranjith’s latest release with Rajinikanth.

Caste politics has been represented in Tamil cinema earlier, but perhaps never so vocally as in Pa Ranjith’s films.

Mari says, “There are many films which come out about these issues but nobody realises what they are saying. They are either condemned or ignored. Ranjith annan’s victory is massive and that’s why everyone is speaking about it. If he hadn’t succeeded, nobody would be talking about it. People assume that such stories cannot succeed, that this politics will not have an appeal.”

Elaborating on Pa Ranjith’s contribution towards Tamil cinema, Mari says, “Ranjith annan’s films say that everyone’s life stories can be brought into the mainstream, that there is celebration even in the lives of the oppressed. He has proved this. Everyone thinks the life of a Dalit must be one of defeat, but he has changed that. He has shown that there can be victory. This is very useful for filmmakers who’ve come after him, we get positive energy from his films.”

Mari Selvaraj believes that this change makes people uncomfortable because they are not used to it. It’s a change which makes them take a look at their way of life with new eyes.

Mari in action

“Do you remember, there was a time when women driving a car or Scooty used to come as a shock? A woman smoking was shocking. But we got used to it. Women are there everywhere now, they are asserting themselves everywhere. Now the politics in such films (Ranjith’s) would have been acceptable if he’d shown the people as oppressed beings. But he showed them as powerful, forceful people. He made a big star, a big team, speak all this with such a big budget. That was shocking to people,” he explains.

Mari also goes on to add that Ranjith had proved a mainstream film needn’t insult women for it to succeed.

“There is no need to fear this. When a new generation takes over and creates something, there will be tremors. But if we withstand it, we can win,” he says.

Mari Selvaraj shares his views on how art can be used to change people’s mindset, “There is a common accusation against cinema that it promotes vulgarity, a certain kind of politics. And it is true. There are many films which do this. But just as we can promote regressive ideas through this medium, we can also promote progressive ones. There are people who say it is cinema which leads to the ruin of society… and sometimes even I feel like that. When we are in such a state, I believe in creating cinema which can change the status quo.”

Pariyerum Perumal was supposed to release in March but the date has now been pushed to July. His family is excited but also nervous, Mari says.

“My family is proud of me but they’re also worried about what I’d have said in my film,” Mari says, smiling. “I’ve lived several lives that they have no idea about. They were shocked to read my stories in Ananda Vikatan. I became aloof from Class 10. I had secrets. I needed my independence, I wanted to do my own things. I’d want to go to the railway track at midnight and sing. They didn’t understand it then. They thought I was crazy. But I think they understand me now.”

Also read: The women of 'Kaala': How Pa Ranjith's film breaks gender moulds in Tamil cinema