At the audio launch of Maamannan, which was attended by Kamal Haasan and the film’s crew including Udhayanidhi Stalin and Vadivelu, Mari Selvaraj said, “One of the main reasons behind the creation of Maamannan is Thevar Magan,” and the audience broke into unanimous applause and celebration. Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (1992) is about Saktivelu, who returns to his hometown after finishing his studies in London. Although he is initially appalled by the practices of the villagers, he becomes one among them due to certain circumstances. Considered a classic, this film stood the test of time and is celebrated for many reasons. But it is also equally criticised as a film that was made with a casteist lens that glorified caste-based practices of a particular community.
In Mari’s speech, he continued, “When I watched Thevar Magan, the kind of pain and impact it had on me, both positive and negative, led me to make Maamannan. While it is celebrated for its film language, it also had a different ripple effect on some audiences. It created a storm in my heart, and I didn’t know how to take it. But I started wondering what if in the world of Thevar Magan, besides Periya Thevar and Chinna Thevar, my father was there; this thought was the spark for Maamannan.”
At the same time, a 13-year-old letter written by Mari to Kamal Haasan resurfaced the internet, in which Mari points out the casteist thoughts in Thevar Magan. This speech of Mari and his letter created several debates on social media with people supporting and opposing his statements, while a few others asserted that it wasn’t right of Mari to speak like that on stage. Explaining his intention and thoughts behind this speech, Mari spoke to Film Companion in an interview. “You will know that it was a very emotional moment if you observe the flow of my speech. I started somewhere and spoke something else. It was unplanned.”
Before the audio launch, the maker had held a special screening of Maamannan for Kamal Haasan. He says, “When I made Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Kamal sir called and appreciated me. He is also the only person in Tamil cinema to have watched Maamannan. While he watched the film, I sat near him and only he knows how emotional I felt. When he held my hands and appreciated the film, my hands and my whole body were trembling, he knows what my mental state was and how much I have yearned for that moment. I have been carrying the story of Maamannan in my heart for years and he would have realised how I felt.”
The director further adds that when he wrote the letter 13 years back, it was a reflection of his anger. Whatever he wrote was also a result of the language he knew and the knowledge he had back then. “I had not read so much back then. But over these many years, I have put in a lot of effort, learnt filmmaking techniques and have evolved.” While his 13-year-old letter was from a space of anger, Mari clarifies that the speech was instead on a positive note. “But now, it is from the place of pooripu (content). He appreciated my film and he was sitting right in front of me. And it was a moment that gave me confidence and belief. If not for that day, when could I speak of all that I have been holding within.”
Mari believes that Kamal Haasan understands his true intention. “After the incident, even before I was able to stop trembling, he told, “This is not just Mari’s politics, it is our politics.” Andha negizhchi ah vida enakku enna venum? (what more do I need?) I felt at peace when he said that. He acknowledged me and my questions. So, he knows the truth and what I meant; he also knows the true story behind Maamannan.”
Mari says that it is like a conversation between a father and son. “Say a son who ran away from home out of anger returns and the father convinces him. That was how the moment felt. If I had spoken about it 30 years later, imagine the kind of impact it has had on me. I didn’t speak to anyone else, I spoke to someone who is close to me, who I trust and someone who knows, understands and is a representation of art. I loved that moment.”
He adds that questions and arguments are a part and parcel of an artist’s journey. “For people who constantly engage with art, the questions, answers and arguments that constantly emerge are not an issue. If even that discourse is not happening, why are we making art? For instance, ten years later, someone will question my films — Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan (2021) or Maamannan — many artists who will emerge later will also question. In fact, there are a lot of questions asked about Pariyerum Perumal now itself. Everyone will ask questions because that’s how art works,” he concludes.