Growing up in a village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli, filmmaker Mari Selvaraj knows the power of moving images and the impact it can have on people. As a kid, however, Mari grew up at a time when going to the movies was deemed wrong and he was punished for it — both by his parents and school teachers. Even the movies he ended up watching in his childhood were mainstream Tamil movies meant for adults. So, he ended up either completely missing the plot or misunderstanding the film altogether. For, the concept of children’s movies was relatively unheard of.
As a school student, Mari Selvaraj was interested in singing and dancing, but the opportunities to showcase his talent were far and few in between. His teachers were preparing him to mimic the adults of his village and did not let him enjoy the innocence of childhood. Therefore, his debut feature — the critically acclaimed Pariyerum Perumal — was a result of capturing the desires and wants he had as a young boy. Mari Selvaraj was recounting these memories at a recent film screening at Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Villivakkam.
The filmmaker was at the screening as part of the Tamil Nadu Government’s year-long initiative to promote art and culture, and also encourage film appreciation among government school students across the State. Aimed at Class VI to IX students, popular children’s films from world cinema have been screened beginning with Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven. The third screening was the French film, The Red Balloon (1956).
“We have been screening a film in the first week of every month. We choose films that have created an impact in cinema,” says R Sudhan, State Project Director, Samagra Shiksha, adding: “We have roped in writers, poets, activists and filmmakers to talk to the children after the screening. This will help them get motivated.”
“As a director, I know how important this is,” says Mari Selvaraj, following the screening. As a Government school student, the filmmaker says that his school did not even have a compound wall, or lights or fans. “You can talk to your relatives sitting in the classroom,” he laughs, adding, “I’m not blaming the Government. But in those times, there was no budget to improve the infrastructure of Government schools. There was no awareness, teachers and parents were strict. There was no one to motivate us.”
But things have changed, believes Mari. “Today, the Government recognises that kids have their own likes and a world of their own. They are encouraging students to watch good cinema, which wasn’t the case in my time,” he says.
Long before he became a filmmaker, Mari admits that he watched a “wrong” set of films and believed that it was cinema until he met filmmaker and his mentor, Ram. “I ran away from my village and came to Chennai not knowing a single person in the city. It was only after joining Ram sir did I understand cinema. He encouraged me to watch world cinema and read. The film foreign film I saw was 400 Blows,” he says, adding that cinema and literature played a big role in shaping his thoughts.
Perhaps that is why the choice of The Red Balloon isn’t surprising. The 34-minute film is about a boy who shares an unusual, mystical relationship with a balloon, which can be seen as a metaphor on dreams and desires. “I really liked the bond between the boy and balloon. The balloon doesn’t have a life but the boy sees it as his friend,” says Clarah Margret of Class IX, “So far, I have only seen films with dialogues and everything is explicitly told. But in this film, we follow the boy’s story and we try to understand what it is about. That was something new for me.”