Until Pariyerum Perumal released last week, not many knew Mari Selvaraj, despite authoring books including Thamirabaraniyil Kollapadathavargal, and a column (Marakkave Ninaikkiren) for a popular Tamil magazine. But now that his debut film has been declared a hit, he says he is tired of reading congratulatory messages. “My phone doesn’t stop ringing. It feels incredible,” he says.
This success, though, has only made Selvaraj feel more responsible as a filmmaker. “We think we live in a liberal and progressive society. But there’s an ugly side to it. We don’t like to discuss issues when they don’t affect us directly,” he says.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Your protagonist Pariyan is a law student in the film. Since you discussed caste and religion, was there a need to structure the story that way?
Pariyerum Perumal is the kind of story that would instil confidence in the minds of first-generation graduates. It’s partly biographical. I was a law college dropout myself. The film begins with a quotation, ‘caste and religion are against humanity’. That summarises everything. Pariyan’s angst was pretty much mine as well. I grew up witnessing violence, and how families had split in the past. It wasn’t an easy journey — from being looked at as an image of doom by my extended family to whatever I am today.
Many had warned my parents that the fifth son wouldn’t bring prosperity and good health. I’m not blaming them but they were pushed into a situation where they followed and practised something I’d never endorse. Eventually, I began questioning and the rebel in me never kept silent.
The film questions many stereotypes. For instance, you had shown how only a certain section of students get to sit in the front row.
I wanted my film to be the voice of the oppressed. There’s this line in one of the songs that goes: ‘Ella manushanum inga onnu illa’ (not everyone here is the same). My village (Puliyankulam near Tirunelveli) had many Pariyans. In fact, it still does.
India has innumerable villages, and there’s no single village without caste and that’s the reason behind this discrimination. We speak of equality, but do we treat everyone alike? Do we allow everyone to live together? I don’t think so. Such stories should be told.
After a few minutes into the film, I thought it was going to be preachy, but it wasn’t.
I was very clear that I shouldn’t send out ‘messages’ to the audience. My focus was on the storytelling rather and how I could depict caste-based killings and college-campus-violence. And that’s where you use the sensibilities you had gained all over these years.
You were assisting Ram since 2006. Why did it take so long time for you to direct a feature film?
I don’t know. Maybe, I was too keen to learn and not direct? I’ve worked with Ram sir from Kattradhu Tamizh till his latest, Peranbu. I’ve learned cinema, literature, life and everything from him. I will continue to assist him in the future too. To be honest, I didn’t join him to become a filmmaker. I wanted to become an actor, dance and do ‘mass’ films. But slowly my perceptions changed. I started reading, writing and watching good cinema.
I was particularly moved by Karuppi, the dog’s characterisation.
She’s my brother’s pet and I’ve known her for quite a few years. Though I admit Karuppi was the soul of the film, I feel bad for making her ‘act’. She’s extremely sharp and did what was required. But did I seek permission to put her through those difficult situations? I didn’t.
And, the character (Kathir’s dad) deserves a special mention.
Therukoothu (a traditional folk art) doesn’t involve women much. Even the female role is usually played by a male. I know of such artistes, and it’s something that fascinates me. You’d see a man with a feeble voice pull off a fiery woman character once the makeup is on. The transformation would be beautiful.
How did Pa Ranjith come forward to produce the film?
I never saw him as a producer. He’s my brother and a visionary. I know anna (Ranjith) for a long time, and he’s always encouraged my writing. When he started Neelam Productions, he asked if I had got a script for him. I’m glad I made a film for his home banner. He was a huge pillar of support. Though anna is a terrific filmmaker, he never interfered in the process.
I could see Ranjith’s influence in Pariyerum Perumal. Karuppi is coloured blue in one song, which reminded me of the climax song in Kaala. I’m talking about those metaphors and sub-texts.
Thank you. I take this as a compliment. Ranjith is an angry man, and so am I. We connect with each other because of our ideologies. He’s an inspiration and he respects others’ space, thoughts, pain and emotions.
I want to ask you about a scene — where Pariyan wants liquor. And a man (Brahmin — with a sacred thread and pattai) offers him a glass.
Oh, yes. The wine shop is the only place where everyone sits and enjoys a drink together, irrespective of caste. Don’t you disagree?
I was equally surprised to see Yogi Babu in an emotional role.
I’m sure after Pariyerum Perumal, filmmakers would write tailor-made roles for him. He can pull off any role. That’s the advantage of being a comedian. It’s not easy to make people laugh. You need to internalise the character and understand complex human emotions. The supporting cast did an excellent job as well. They’re not trained actors. I found them at the shooting spot.