Gita Selvarajan wasn't introduced to basketball until she was in her 40s. You'd never know by talking to her. Sai Selvarajan

Movies

SXSW Doc Details How a Sri Lankan Immigrant Became Hooked on Hoops

Dallas filmmaker Sai Selvarajan tells the story of his mother, Gita, in The Unlikely Fan, which will premiere virtually this week.

She grew up in Sri Lanka watching cricket.  When she moved to Nigeria for a decade, soccer was the sport of choice.

But when Gita Selvarajan immigrated with her family to Dallas in the mid-1980s, she needed a new outlet for her inner fandom.

“The one sport we both gravitated to was basketball,” said Selvarajan’s son, Sai. “The game is fast. You can see their emotions. It’s easy to pick up and understand. And even back then, it felt like an international game.”

More than 30 years later, the retired teacher is still a basketball junkie. Now 78, her story is the subject of Sai Selvarajan’s eight-minute multimedia documentary, The Unlikely Fan, which will have its virtual premiere this week as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival.

The film chronicles Gita’s affinity for the NBA, in particular — from her admiration of Michael Jordan after the Chicago Bulls’ title run during the 1990s, to her delight in watching her hometown Mavericks win the 2011 crown with retired superstar Dirk Nowitzki.

The family moved to Dallas in 1986, when Sai was in elementary school. As a filmmaker and senior editor at a local post-production shop, he came up with the idea several years ago, but only last year decided to follow through.

“Whenever my friends would talk to my mom about hoops, it would trip them out,” Sai said. “It was super personal, and was going to introduce a whole new audience to my mom. I knew there was a story there, but I wanted to evoke the right emotions.”

Although Gita is high-risk, Sai and co-director Jeff Bednarz were able to conduct on-camera interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic by shooting outdoors in her garage with a limited crew and long lenses.

Through some connections, Sai recently was able to arrange a private screening of the finished film for Nowitzki at his Dallas editing studio.

“That was really cool. I was watching him watch my mom,” Sai said. “He was super sweet and really liked it.”

While his mother has reluctantly embraced the spotlight, Sai hopes the film showcases the growth of basketball as a global game from a personal perspective. In fact, he hopes the idea spawns a series of short films about other “unlikely fans.”

“I wanted it to have this universal language,” he said. “This is just a love story between a person and a sport.”

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