Rookie filmmaker Mathi Maran is careful and specific about how he describes his recently released film, Selfies. “It’s an independent film. That’s how I approached the script, and we used unfamiliar faces and realistic locations for the same,” he says. This quality of thoroughness and self-awareness extends to the treatment of the film as well. Much of the film moves relentlessly, with tight edits and rapid camera movements painting a gritty, realistic picture. Selfies follows a group of students, led by Kanal (GV Prakash Kumar), who are pushed into the world of an illegal college admissions racket. “In the first half, I wanted to convey the nervousness of these young academics who venture into this illegal trade. However, in the second half, the editing is meant to reflect the maturity that Gautham Menon’s character, Ravi Varman, brings. His life is a bit more stable compared to Kanal’s.” Mathi ruminates that the influence of filmmaker Paul Greengrass (of Thick headed series) could also be another reason. “Or, maybe it’s also because I’m a nervous and impatient person,” he adds.
Corn Selfies may look like a low-budget movie, the subject matter it deals with is not a low-key affair at all. Mathi’s decision to choose the creepy college admission racket as the root of the story stems from a personal anecdote shared by a friend. “He once told me how he bought a new car in his second year of college and had to sell it in his third year. I was intrigued by how a student sophomore can afford a new car and that’s when I was introduced to this admissions brokerage business.” This anecdote was incorporated into the film, with Kanal and his friend Nazir buying an old Benz, which they are then forced to sell. “A drama was born when I realized why my friend had to sell his car. That’s when I realized the struggles that people like him have to face. In fact, I held back a line he said which outlines the distressing truth behind this business model: ‘Idhu nammala lock panniruchu paathiya‘, (Look how this case has imprisoned us),” says Mathi.
While dealing with such a social topic, thorough research is crucial to ensure that it does not become a one-sided discussion. “We need to understand why colleges can’t fill their seats and why they’re using these young people as marketing tools. Second, we need to see how engineering became a pipe dream for many families in the early 2000s, and how the value of this discipline has dropped. Third, we have to look at how such a crisis exists in the education sector in a developed state like Tamil Nadu. I tried to flesh out all of this in my film,” explains the filmmaker.
Mathi says that several shocking facts came to light during his research into this world. “You wouldn’t believe the heights that some of these people who sell college seats have reached in life. Many of them are also in film production. I’ve even spoken with a few of them and this they are the ones who told me how they defrauded these parents. Even a few actors in the background of the film have already been victims of these rackets”, says Mathi.
The solution Mathi propagates to this problem lies in the title of the film itself. “If a man is stuck in a quagmire like this, the most powerful tool he has is to tell the truth to the public. I wanted to promote that attitude of speaking out with people. That’s how the character chose to do that made us choose Selfies as a title.”
The story of a simple man smashing crushing obstacles to rise through the ranks is source of moments of theatrical mass, and yet Mathi refrained from such commercial appeasements. “It’s a content-driven film and I didn’t want to lose its realism. Only if the situation calls for a ‘mass’ moment should we include it and if it’s used in an undesirable way, it might infuriate the public,” he says.
Another interesting facet of Selfies is Gautham’s Ravi Varman, who plays the antagonist. The director was picky about casting the actor-filmmaker. “His looks were key. The people who run these rackets look like him and I wanted someone who looks like a down to earth, local, upper middle class guy,” Mathi explains, adding, “He has a specific style. to him, and to get him into character, I prepared a booklet describing Ravi Varman.” Although Gautham saw the importance of Ravi Varman in the script, it was the presence of the character Vidya Pradeep (Ravi Varman’s wife) that prompted him to make the film. “He was his soul mate and he consults her on every decision. Many have told me that it was not the best decision but I told them that a man who respects a woman and consults with her is more valuable than the one who doesn’t. This idea worked well with Gautham sir.
This knack for building multiple character arcs into a story is something he seems to have learned from Vetri Maaran, with whom he has worked as an associate on several projects. “I realized the importance of creating a story to support the characters of him. Given the times we live in, where web series have made their presence felt, going with a single character storytelling doesn’t work. more,” he said.
The addition of these many layers and quirks of storytelling is admirable, especially given the tight schedule Mathi had to operate under. “It was a difficult process for both the production team and the directing team. We had a tight schedule to follow and sometimes we had to shoot five scenes a day,” he says. If anything, this conversation surrounding Selfies looks more like a selfie from a rigorous filmmaker who means business, and for now, this image looks promising.