Director Mari Selvaraj seems comfortable with all types of conversation. As our video team gets busy setting up the cameras, he speaks about multiple topics: his impressive dressing sense, his inability to visit hometown to see films, and about how he likes his assistants to be part of his interviews generally— all while sipping buttermilk. We eventually gravitate towards Karnan, his second film, and he says both films he has directed are extensions of what he grew up seeing. “The film is based on my life, the people I grew up watching, and the stories they have told me. All my films will have pieces of my life.”
How difficult was it to infuse commercial elements into a script to suit a star like Dhanush?
The screenplay of Karnan lends itself organically to heroic moments. Dhanush sir chose this film knowing that he would fit well into this world. Merely delivering what I narrated to him was sufficient. I believe I have done that.
Any worries that the idea of fist fights could dilute the seriousness of the story?
In everyday life, we see many such incidents. I am sure every person would have felt angry and hit someone in their lives. Every person would have cried and loved. All of them are a part of our films, to different degrees. We might all have dreamt of flying, running through forests, and riding an elephant. Fantasy films are usually a projection of these dreams. Karnan lent itself organically to such ideas; so, I didn’t have to worry about any dilution.
How does Mari Selvaraj, the writer, differ from Mari Selvaraj, the director?
Writer Mari works in solitude and relies on his decision-making. All the responsibility is solely his. As a director though, I cannot do a film all by myself. I have to work with cast and crew members, and it turns into a team effort. Everyone from my hero to cinematographer and art director is free to point out my mistakes. When I am a writer though, I travel alone into my world, relive that life in my head and then, create content.
Unlike Pariyerum Perumal, which featured a single important woman in Jo, Karnan has many.
My world is filled with women. As a child, I grew up around grandmothers and sisters. In college, I had a lot of women as friends and today, this continues. I believe that good artists and creators have received affection from women. Pengaloda purathoda naan nikkala, avanga agathukulla poga vaaipu enakku kedachirukku. I have an understanding of who they are from within. That’s why I’m confident that every woman in Karnan will be loved.
How challenging is it to walk the thin line between entertainment and ideology?
Irrespective of what you believe in, how considerate you are towards film, language decides efficiency. You should know why you are choosing a story, why you are creating a world, why you choose to travel for days inside it, and why you are keen on making it reach the masses. Once you, as a writer, find answers to these questions, this film language will find you. Only after that can the producer, actors and crew members come into the picture. You then turn into a director and are able to discuss your work. It all comes down to sharing your idea of life and messaging to the people.
You spoke about artistic responsibility when the title of one of the songs —Manjanathi Puranam — underwent a change. Could you speak about how the effects of your film and its many components sometimes end up surprising you?
When travelling within a script, the faces of the characters keep disturbing you and remind you about their characteristics, their likes and dislikes, their land... When you are writing about this world, this picturisation happens automatically. You start seeing things that you wouldn’t have noticed even while living that life earlier. Something minuscule might turn out to be more important than you anticipated; you might get surprised with new meanings. When it becomes a film, the effect becomes stronger.
Both your films, Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, seem to create an ecosystem of art from Therukoothu to paintings.
Art is a part and parcel of everyone’s life. Without noticing this, stories about people feel incomplete. Even if lifestyles have changed, people are still living with god, their deceased, their beliefs and myths. People repose faith in something: the sun, a god, a cow, a goat, a dog… It’s natural then that I focus on these aspects.
Santhosh Narayanan’s album has utilised some unique contributors like Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal and Deva. Could you speak about the decisions that dictated the music of Karnan?
Why a song is required in a scene, determines how far we travel for it. Even if it’s only entertainment, certain effort is necessary. If it helps advance the story and gets across a certain emotion, a different type of effort is necessary. In both Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, songs take the story forward. I believe that the idea of songs, in general, is to transfer emotion. I search for strong reasons to bring in a song; that’s how songs in Karnan were born.
Santhosh sir understands the depth I ask for and he believes that this is required too. It helps make the film an interesting project for him as well. We try to create songs that we hope will be relatable even after a decade; the effort to create such music is daunting sometimes. I am glad Santhosh sir enjoys creating such music. He loves to transform the culture and emotions of the people into music. He relishes challenges like, say, having to communicate grief as a celebration. Despite being a rural story, Karnan has music that is not restricted by genre. There is no point in preaching to the choir. I wanted the songs to carry the agony of this film’s characters to the other side of the world.
You show a great love for symbolism in your films: from figurines to masks to posters of films like Bharathi Kannamma and Seevalaperi Pandi…
I am just portraying what I have seen in my life. Those who are seeing it now might find it to be new, but I have already seen it. I underline such things during scripting. I believe that the incidents I have witnessed can be turned into symbols. I am merely capturing them with my shots. I don’t want to miss it and I want to show that I didn’t understand its value back then, but I know it now. My aim is to make sure that my audience understands all of this. My ADs source such information sometimes even without knowing that I have it scripted. When it all comes together in a shot, great value can be drawn. That’s when a property becomes a symbol. That’s the value of the art form; it’s not from me.
Thanks to filmmakers like you and Pa Ranjith, Dalit cinema has, today, become a part of everyday conversation. Where do you see this conversation heading?
We all have certain responsibilities. We know that after a long time, we are doing something. So, it should be done correctly; it should reach everyone. As an art form it needs to get stronger. The emotion should be conveyed as you intend for it to. That’s what Ranjith anna and I wish for. It’s not about success and failure; it’s about being perfect.