The Chennai of Tamil Cinema

Watching the Tamil film Vikram Vedha left me feeling tired and frustrated. Here it was again: the North Madras that abounds in clichés and gangsters. Most Tamil filmmakers see the streets of North Madras as fertile ground for police and robbers, rather than a living space.

Very few Tamil films have depicted Chennai as it is. On the one hand, we have directors like Sasikumar and Samuthirakani, who express their discontent with Chennai through their films. They show us how the lives of village folk are shattered, once they migrate to the Big Bad City. They tell us villages are places filled with love, and a rigorous value system; while cities are depraved places filled with dirt. On the other hand, we have people like Anirudh who compose songs with lyrics that scream, “Chennai is matchless!” They claim with pride that Mylapore filter coffee, Besant Nagar beach and Mount Road traffic jams form the identity of Chennai.

Is Chennai nothing but the sum of these facets? I wanted to see if Tamil literature contained the Chennai that was missing from Tamil cinema and that’s how I began to read Ashokamitran’s novel Thanneer. This novel is set in the Chennai (then Madras) of the 1960s, the city as it was much before my time. But as I read each page, I wanted to exclaim, “This is Chennai, snuggled amidst all these words!”

Laughing at the crowd

It’s difficult to summarise the plot of Thanneer. The novel has a complicated structure, like the vast interconnected network of underground water pipes. Ashokamitran’s writing captures the chaos of Chennai, a teeming mass of people.

Although the novel focuses primarily on a single character named Jamuna, it explores the lives of people she encounters. Every single character is someone Jamuna meets when she goes in search of water. Each one of those characters is in search of water too.

A different Chennai

I couldn’t have known the Chennai of the 1960s, yet it felt intimate. The main reason for this is the city’s chaos. Nothing happens as planned. Most times, there is no plan, just makeshift solutions to problems. These solutions then worsen the problems. Thanneer takes these traits of Chennai and flows with them.

Ashokamitran writes about ordinary incidents that happen in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Water is a scant resource in the city, and so everyone’s life revolves around it. Which area do we prefer to rent a house in? Do we like the house we live in? If you think about these questions long enough, your trail of thoughts will lead you to water. Ashokamitran conveys this with the water lorry that makes its way through the city. How many Tamil films set in Chennai can claim to have given any screen space to the water lorry?

Never enough water

There are three black water tanks in the street on which my house in Chennai is located. The water lorries fill up these tanks with water and move on. Later, important people in the area help distribute this water to the residents. On one occasion, a heated argument caused someone to get into a brawl with the water distributor. A bleeding head ensued. He was rushed to the hospital, and was never seen in the vicinity of the water tanks thereafter.

When water isn’t being distributed, the water tank is a meeting place for people to sit and have a chat. These are not people without jobs. They may even be responsible 40-year-olds, who show up to work on time, with lunch bags hanging from the handlebars of their bikes. When they get some free time, they sit down at the water tank and chat with passers-by, making friendly enquiries. There are also frequent power cuts in this part of the world. You’d hear that a transformer blew up, or that the EB folks[1] are digging a trench somewhere. Ashokamitran’s novel has all of this and more.

The disorganised process of installing a water tank, a taxi driver’s frustration when his taxi gets stuck in a muddy trench after rains, the anger of a middle-aged man who argues with a careless government employee for breaking his house’s sewage pipe, streetlights that don’t work as expected, government departments that do not know to function in tandem, people carrying kerosene tins as they go in search of leaking pipes during rains, a drab street that comes alive as soon as the water pumps yield water—the novel contains many such snapshots of life in the metropolis.

A city’s cadence

A city like Chennai isn’t made up of just buildings and streets. Chennai has a unique language, other than Madras Baashai [Madras slang]. The unique problems that this city throws at the people, their joys and sorrows, all of them creep into day-to-day conversations. Take a look at this one:

Here’s a translation:

Murali stood holding on to uncle’s dhoti. In one quick move, Chaya lifted Murali off his feet. Murali kept staring at her face.

“Why have you come?”

“I came to see mother, Uncle.”

“Two days ago I sent for you and Jamuna.”

“She has come with me, Uncle.”

“Alright. See your mother first. I need to talk to you. Did you get a letter from Venkat? Someone said he’s coming to Madras.”

“Yes.”

“Will you be staying for a while?”

“I have taken leave from work today, Uncle.”

“Alright. Go see your mother. Did you get a bus on time yesterday?”

“Yes. I did.”

“Did you reach home before the rain?”

“No, the rain came.”

“You could have stayed here for the night.”

Chaya didn’t reply. She patted Murali’s cheek and kissed him. He continued staring at her just as he did earlier.

Alone with his thoughts

“Did you get a bus on time yesterday?”

“Did you reach home before the rain?”

These are casual, friendly enquiries that are common in Chennai. They are variants of the question, “Did you reach home safely?” In Chennai’s congested streets, it is a huge accomplishment if you get a bus on time and reach home safely. When it rains, the streets test the nimbleness of your feet, with puddles, making the mission more challenging. On most occasions, the people who ask these questions do not expect an answer. There is no significant difference in their reaction, whether your answer is a yes or a no. Note how the uncle doesn’t react in any noteworthy way to Chaya’s replies.

Ashokamitran has written dialogues in this novel with the dexterity of a photographer who captures an elusive beast on film. Thanneer isn’t a novel about water scarcity alone. It is the portrayal of the struggle to make a living amidst innumerable congestions. Chennai has this in common to many other cities. A line on the 57th page illustrates this perfectly.

“Everyone’s going to die. Everyone’s dying.”

This is the soul of Thanneer.

Is the reality depicted in Thanneer seen in Tamil cinema? Tamil film directors like Vetrimaaran, Pa Ranjith, Ram, Balaji Sakthivel and Manikandan make films rooted in reality. But Tamil cinema is yet to explore many faces of Chennai. I haven’t been able to see in Tamil cinema stories about the Gujaratis residing in Chennai, as shown in Dilip Kumar‘s Tamil short story Theervu [Solution]. Our films continue to make fun of this community with lazy references to Sowcarpet, and unfunny one-liners about their ways with money.

I am not asking for all aspects of Chennai to be shown in a single film. But I cannot help observe that even if you compile all Tamil films set in Chennai, you are left with gaping holes, and not the complete picture.

For example, which unique dishes of Chennai have been shown in Tamil cinema? Do idli and Mylapore filter coffee constitute the primary diet of Chennai? The Youtube channel Madras Central introduces many small, roadside food shops. Do you recollect seeing anything like this in a Tamil film? This is why the scene in Attakathi which shows the heroine eating biriyani to celebrate an occasion is important. The scene from Engeyum Eppodhum in which Ananya and Sharvanand eat meals at an ordinary restaurant is important too. This is how Chennai fills itself up. It visits tiny eateries and leaves with parcels of rice and liquid accompaniments in plastic bags tied with thread.

Another example of misrepresentation is the incorrect and often tacky portrayal of the lives of Chennai’s upper class in Tamil cinema. In Thanneer, a reasonably wealthy Brahmin man permits others to use the water pump at his home. But he isn’t portrayed as a liberal philanthropist. “Be quick!” he says. However, such characters are saddled with clichés on screen. They speak in a Brahmin slang with undue emphasis on syllables, attend kitty parties (Aruvi), and revel in silly deeds (Meyaadha Maan). This is an amateur expression of the grudge that certain directors hold against the upper class.

The people

I have known and seen various kinds of people who live in Chennai. You have the Punjabi lad, who was born and brought up in Chennai, who can speak Tamil fluently. You have people who drank watery tea all their lives, in an effort to extend the lives of precious milk packets, whose houses in Chennai’s outermost areas are stuck in construction limbo, as they battle with builders in courts. You have the new teacher who cried in the classroom when students made fun of her height. You have students who apologised the moment she broke down. You have Muslim kids who burst crackers for Deepavali simply because they loved hearing the explosions. You have the priest seated on his bike, remarking that he just finished a puja at Thala’s[2] neighbour’s house. You have the commuter who’s annoyed by the thin layer of dust the city’s traffic deposits on her sweaty skin each time she goes out in the sun. When a child exclaims in a restaurant, “I want parotta!” you have the waiter who tells the child’s father, “He looks like my son. The parotta in our restaurant is stale. Order dosai.” Why don’t we see such characters in Tamil cinema often?

“Vedha is in hiding in North Madras!”, “Jessie is so pretty!” Why do we hear these kind of lines again and again? Does Chennai offer no stories without an aggressive goon or a crazy IT employee?

I do not intend to declare from a podium that the stories and lives of people from all demographics must be recorded on film for posterity. My idea is an old, forgotten one: When you see your life and someone like you on screen, it gives you a special feeling, it reminds you that your story too is worth capturing. “I too exist in this world.” This is the feeling that Rajinikanth gave autorickshaw drivers when he starred in Baasha. That is why you can still find auto rickshaws in Chennai proudly wearing Rajinikanth stickers. In a hugely popular medium like cinema, if you consistently portray certain characters in stereotypes, or completely avoid showing them, then it is as though you are refusing to make eye contact with them. You are denying their existence.

There are many films which are exceptions: Oru Naal Koothu, Engeyum Eppodhum, Kaaka Muttai, Aandavan Kattalai and Kurangu Bommai to name a few. The characters in these films, their jobs, their homes, their day-to-day activities, their speech—all of them were just right and fresh. I wish many more such films get made.

When a film’s setting is established well, a story unfolds. Let me end with an example. In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, the son of a rich businessman, who lives in a mansion on a hill, is kidnapped. Kurosawa doesn’t directly reveal the motive of the kidnapper, or the grudge he holds against the businessman. He only shows us a single visual. Through the window of the tin house in which the kidnapper lives, we see the businessman’s grand mansion atop the hill. This is the sight the kidnapper sees everyday, the sight he wakes up to every morning. Kurosawa makes a subtle point about his state of mind through this visual. In this case, the film’s setting isn’t simply a location. It transforms into a storytelling tool that helps us comprehend a character’s psyche.

This is just one possibility. If you look closely at the place you live, the people around you, and the literature that’s written about them, you will find numerous stories hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. Let’s pick them up, dust the cobwebs, and give expression to them through the language of cinema.

Notes

[1] EB is short form for TNEB, Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. EB folks are employees of TNEB who are usually deployed to do electrical maintenance work.

[2] Thala, a Tamil word meaning leader, is the nickname for Tamil actor Ajith Kumar

Further Reading

  • Water is an English translation of Thanneer by Lakshmi Holmström. You can buy it here.
  • Ramchander wrote about his issues with Vikram Vedha here.

Inputs from Anusha Srinivasan

All images provided by Vishwanathan. They may not be reproduced without permission.


About the author

Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.

About the photographer

Vishwanathan finished his engineering degree, like a Typical South Indian Guy, and then took to a different career path with a camera in his hands. He likes to tell stories with his pictures, in subtle and funny ways. And he believes the audience is as clever as the artist.