It’s rare when filmmakers live the kind of lives you make movies about, but this is something Sri Lankan-born filmmaker Sai Selvarajan has managed to do not just once but twice to great acclaim.
By his own description, Selvarajan was born in Sri Lanka on a Wednesday night during a coup d’etat. He then grew up in Nigeria playing soccer and eating bananas. In 2020, Selvarajan told his own origin story, along with three other origin stories in the short film Coup d’Etat Math which went on to win Special Jury Recognition in 2020’s South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual potpourri of parallel film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that takes place in Austin, Texas, US, where Selvarajan is currently based.
This year, Selvrajan debuts another film at the SXSW that is closely connected to his life – the story of his mother, Gita Selvrajan, and her passion for sport, which evolved and grew with her journeys around the world (she has lived in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the US), and has made her the most unlikely of basketball junkies. Picture, if you will, a 78-year-old South Asian auntie who is a basketball junkie. This is the story of Selvarajan’s latest film, appropriately titled The Unlikely Fan.
Brunch caught up with Selvarajan for a little more on the story behind The Unlikely Fan and how it came to be.
How are you doing? What’s Texas like right now, with the ongoing pandemic/vaccination process?
I’m doing good, all things considered. Texas is a little bit of a mess right now. They just lifted the mask mandate, which means the virus is going to spread faster. But it does seem like smart people will continue to wear masks. The vaccination process is slow but steady. Both my parents have had both doses, so I feel really good about that, and my age group should be getting ours soon. If Trump would have done his job, there would be a lot more people vaccinated and a lot less death.
Tell us about ‘The Unlikely Fan’. How did it come about?
I’ve always wanted to tell this story about my mom. As a filmmaker, you’re constantly on the hunt for an interesting story to tell. It came about after I finished my last short film and was thinking about what project I would jump into next.
Gita is my mom. She was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Nigeria after getting married. Her sister and brother were both national champions in table tennis for Sri Lanka, so she came from a sports family. We both got into basketball at the same time. We had been living in the States for a few years and I think it was an attempt to try and get into some American things.
What was it about her fascination with the game that seemed ‘unlikely’ for you?
At the time, I just thought it was normal, but as I got older, I realised that not many of my friends’ moms were even remotely interested in basketball.
What did the process of making this film entail? How was the experience?
We had to be very careful when we shot the film, because Gita is in the high-risk category. So we shot in open-air garages with long lenses and masked up. Being such a personal film, I was very self-conscious about it, but I stayed true to the story and kept at it.
At the base of it, it’s a love letter from Gita to the NBA (National Basketball Association). The experience was great. Lot of people donated their talents to this project. I’m very grateful for everyone involved and the opportunity to create, even when it felt like the world was just crumbling. I’ll always look back on this film with joy because of the circumstances in which it was made. But I think you can feel the sense of urgency in the filmmaking – there’s no half-stepping by anyone; every move feels bold and confident because they were all in.
What’s your relationship with your mom like?
We’re very close. I think living in two foreign countries (Nigeria and the US), your family unit becomes very tight.
If you were to describe her in three words, what would they be and why?
Strong, loving, and hard-working. She’s very strong mentally. And she has a very loving nature about her. She’s very hard-working; she doesn’t take anything on unless she’s going to do it well and excel at it.
Do you enjoy basketball yourself?
I do. I love playing basketball, I love watching basketball, and I love talking about basketball. It’s really found a permanent place in my heart.
What was the best part about directing this short film?
Just watching it come together and seeing other people’s reaction to it. I think it’s made a lot of people happy.
What is the response you hope viewers will have to ‘The Unlikely Fan’?
I hope the response is happiness. I hope it makes people happy and they take that happiness with them.
Have you found your next project?
We’re now in talks with Religion of Sports to make this an episode with different “unlikely fans”. I’m really looking forward to telling more of these types of stories in the coming year.