The other Madras of Tamil cinema

There is no doubt that the home of Tamil cinema is Madras or Chennai, as you like it; much like Lords is called the Mecca of cricket. Kodambakkam, the haloed AVM Studios, the Adyar Film Institute are all major parts of Tamil cinema’s history. The role that Madras and its various elements played in the growth of Tamil cinema can be a separate subject of study in itself; it is the home of all the big production houses, the big stars and what not. But that is not the subject of discussion here. When I called Madras the ‘Home of Tamil cinema’, it was for another reason, it being the fact that a vast majority of Tamil films are set within the boundaries of Chennai. This statement is not based on any concrete statistic over any period of time. It is just that the odds that a film one watches will be set in Chennai are greater than any other place. Skimming through the recollections of recent films that one has seen reaffirms the thought. Yes, Chennai is indeed the backdrop of most Tamil films made. That takes us to the next question, why? Chennai is one place everyone in Tamil Nadu is familiar with, if not first hand, at least through

hearsay. What made it so familiar? Apart from political and economical reasons, one has to say that cinema has played a part in making Chennai familiar to almost every Tamilian. That would make the entire matter like the proverbial ‘chicken or egg’ question. Does cinema depend on Chennai to instantly connect to the audience or does Chennai need cinema to cast it in a fascinating light? Let’s examine.

When a film is set in Chennai, there are some intrinsic elements that come with it which the director doesn’t have to take time or trouble explaining. The hustling crowds, the jam-packed green buses, the all pervading presence of police, the cosmopolitan population etc. Then, there are Chennai’s own landmarks that have been so often used in Tamil cinema, like the Chennai Central and the LIC building (right from the 60s) and in more recent times, the ever increasing number of flyovers. These characteristics of Chennai have become so integral to Tamil cinema that Chennai itself has become a character. And, film makers have also given a few of their own additions to Chennai’s character. Corruption, water scarcity, crime are some of them. There are umpteen numbers of times when such traits have been used in films, at many times for comic relief. Chennai is an easy and abiding backdrop against which all these and more elements can be portrayed without much trouble because this city is a heterogeneous mix of people of all kinds from all parts of India. There are so many schools of thought, so many influences and so many opportunities that one gets the feeling that anything is possible and it is this infinite scope that makes it a fertile ground for film makers.

Chennai is integral to many a Tamil film, but that is only for those that are set in a city. What about those which are set in a rural backdrop? They certainly cannot use Chennai, where do they go? While there is no dearth of choices when it comes to rural areas in Tamil Nadu, each of them with a different flavor, a different feel and most importantly a different type of Tamil, Madurai seems to be the favored destination of many film makers. There might be people who refute this, especially those who belong to Coimbatore and Tirunelveli. Yes, films have been set in these parts of Tamil Nadu too and an even larger number of films have taken advantage of the distinct and instantly recognizable dialects. But looking at the recent years, one has to give Madurai the honor of being Tamil cinema’s second Madras, or the rural home of Tamil cinema.

Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram are two films set in Madurai that have been hugely successful in the recent past, there are a few others too. Then there is the upcoming Aadukalam and Pasanga. What is common between these films apart from the fact that they are set in Madurai? To put it bluntly, the answer is the sickle. I don’t know about Aadukalam or Pasanga, but Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram definitely had a place for the sickle. And, having seen the trailer and stills of the upcoming films, there is no reason to believe that violence will not be a major factor in either of them too. Not knowing Madurai too well myself, it is not easy to tell why it is being liked so much by film makers. But it is a very obvious thing that films set in Madurai have certain elements in common. Violence is not the only thing. In fact violence is a part of almost all Tamil movies irrespective of whether they are set in Madurai, Madras or anywhere else. More than violence, blood and sickle might be the right terms to use. Apart from that, Madurai’s characteristic and unmistakable slang has been used with great success by our film makers. It has been applied so well that one gets the feeling that this is the type of Tamil that is best used for what we call ‘nakkal’ or ‘nayyandi’ or any other name. Close competition comes from the ‘vaale, pole…’ slang of Tirunelveli. It is just a guess that it is the rustic setting and the highly enjoyable slang that has made Madurai a favorite.

But, is Madurai only about the sickle and the sarcasm. Films of late have shown only these two aspects of the land. Madras has been far luckier. All its facets, right from the modern BPOs, infinite job opportunities to the dark lanes and the crimes have been depicted. But Madurai’s depiction remains two dimensional. One cannot recollect any movie of the recent past where the youth have been shown as doing anything for their livelihood, except of course being henchmen. While this might not be entirely false, it is also not the entire picture. Subramaniapuram showed the Madurai in the 1980s. But movies showing contemporary Madurai too depict almost the same thing, except that the overgrown hair and the bell bottoms are missing. It is as if the stereotype of the unemployed youth with a sickle in hand has endured over two decades.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that most of the films mentioned above, set in Madurai are highly entertaining and I am in no way trying to criticize them or their makers. It is just that one gets the feeling that Madurai can be depicted in its totality, not just as one cross section which shows just mindless violence and non-stop sarcasm. The land that has the historical ‘Meenakshi Amman’ temple deserves better.

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