Tamil films: How north Chennai marks its presence while Kodambakkam thrives
Chennai was born in the north and grew southward. While places in south and west such as West Mambalam, Adyar or Egmore neighbourhoods of Mani Ratnam or Gautam Menon (kings of the Chennai padam), ruled Tamil cinema for long, north Chennai is fast making inroads into cinematic storytelling.
‘Enga area ulla varadhe… Enga area ulla varadhe!’ sings a school-uniform wearing Dhanush. ‘Pudhupettai, Kasimedu, Ennooru, Vyasarpadi - enga area. Anna Nagar, KK Nagar, T Nagar, Boat Club - unga area.’ “This is our area, don’t you dare enter it,” is roughly how the song in Pudhupettai (2006) goes, demarcating rich neighbourhoods in the centre, west and south of Chennai from ghettos up north.
Chennai was born in the north and grew southward. “North Chennai traditionally had factories - it’s more working class,” says film historian and wildlife conservationist Theodore Baskaran. It was the south that became the new ‘Madras’ with its wealthy residential localities and the middle class. Today, north Chennai lies neglected by fellow residents and the powers that be. And traditionally it used to be neglected by cinema too. “This is because there is just no place to shoot in north Chennai,” says AR Venkatachalapathy, historian, and Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies. “Unless you want a film to be set in the north, which we’re seeing as a new trend now.”
It’s a substantial trend in a city that defines Tamil cinema and is defined by it. North Chennai was the setting for a bunch of post-2000 movies: Gemini, Pudhupettai, Polladhavan, Idharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara and Madras. Tamil movies frequently immortalise the abandoned north - usually through unforgettable villains like ‘Pattasu’ Balu (Thiruppachi) and Selvam (Polladhavan), and occasionally through the hero, as in Pudhupettai. “North Chennai is now getting its representation through gaana paatu (city folk songs on poverty, life in the slums, love, loss and struggles) and in movies based entirely on the locality like Irudhi Suttru for example,” Baskaran says.
So when Madras (2014), set in the northern Chennai neighbourhood of Vyasarpadi, arrived, it did a daring thing - saying that north Chennai was Madras, not the West Mambalam, Adyar or Egmore neighbourhoods of Mani Ratnam or Gautam Menon, kings of the Chennai padam. In Madras, filmmaker Pa Ranjith (who went on to make Kabali) detailed a rich account of everyday life in the slums - that it’s not just gangsters who live there as seen in Pudhupettai, but also hip-hop lovers, working class men, women and IT professionals, giving the world a fuller vision of Chennai’s thriving Dalit communities.
But north Chennai has an unexpected older connection to the movies - printing presses. This is where aspiring lyricists and scriptwriters come to start their career. Take 26-year-old Padmavathy, who moved to Chennai from Tiruchi, determined to become a lyricist. Padma loved writing couplets and poems in Tamil, and found her way gradually into films after a chance participation in a TV show and when people started recognising her on the street after.
“I enjoyed the publicity and the praise, but my one dream was to live in Chennai and settle down in Saligramam or Kodambakkam, because it’s where most directors and people from Tamil cinema live. My father wanted me to settle down in Australia.”
She found herself a house in Velachery in south Chennai and made a beeline to north Chennai in search of cheap printing presses for her first book - an accepted mode for the struggling writer. She printed dozens and dozens of copies of her poems and songs, and then handed them to every director she could find. Her friends with more genteel aspirations wondered how ‘safe’ she would be, travelling to that part of the city. “Local area nu solluvaangale… [People would call it ‘local’ in a derogatory way]. I’d buy a 50-rupee bus pass for the day and travel to Parrys, Chintadripet, Pudupet…” And one of those books (ironically printed in a press in south Chennai) led to her first break. Today, Padma assists directors with film scripts and TV series, and writes lyrics.
It’s in north Chennai that 24-year-old assistant director Muthu Rasa Kumar has had the most fun; it was his favourite area in the city, simply because it used to remind him of home, Madurai. His anecdotes of north Chennai are cinematic. “The place is fun, joyous - ellarum sagajam-aa iruppaanga [everyone’s simple and easygoing]. Even a bus ride there is eventful; once a couple of people were talking about a death in their friend’s family; a minute later they broke into a gaana paatu!”
Kumar and Padma are classic strugglers in the Tamil film industry, or Kollywood as it is known, and their knowledge of Chennai is intimate.
When Muthu Rasa Kumar was a student (he was pursuing an MA in Journalism from Madras University; he was innocently convinced this would somehow lead to an AD job), he loved to roam the city - there was the scenic Marina Beach Road in Santhome, which was starkly different at night from what it was in the morning, ECR with its temples and proximity to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry, Pattinappakkam much further away… “We [friends and I] used to stay overnight on Marina Beach on some days; sometimes the police would chase us, sometimes they’d tell us the good spots for sleeping. I’d talk to the tea sellers and the ice cream sellers, who’d do brisk business at night and they’d tell me all the crime spots,” Kumar says with a laugh.
Chennai, predictably for a city with a major movie industry (by December 23, 2016, Chennai had produced 196 movies that year), has always attracted cinema hopefuls from Tamil Nadu’s villages, who dream of making it big. Muthu Rasa Kumar bolted from Thenkarai, his small village in Madurai, via the superfast Nellai Express to the crowded Egmore station in Chennai, with hopes of becoming an assistant director. As soon as he arrived, Kumar made his way to bustling Triplicane to stay at a ‘mansion’ with three of his friends, who were already cramped in one room.
A mansion anywhere denotes a ‘large and impressive dwelling’ (think Beverly Hills or Kozhikode or Ahmedabad). But not in Triplicane, where space is hard to come by but rents are cheap, the variety of food never disappoints, and where cows roam with style. In Triplicane, mansions are beehive buildings brimming with bachelors - tiny rooms filled with rickety beds that house at least three people. The mansions have seen a number of cinema hopefuls - from the poet Kannadasan to director Bharathiraja to actor Raghuvaran. Triplicane, an area that’s older than Chennai, is a heterogenous mix with agraharams (traditional row houses occupied by brahmins), the stately residence of the Nawab of Arcot, the Pallava-built Parthasarathy Swamy Temple, the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Chepauk cricket stadium and Vivekananda House, a salmon pink building that was originally built to store US-imported ice, but now celebrates Swami Vivekananda.
Triplicane isn’t the only mainstay of mansions - strugglers today stay in and around Vadapalani. There is another mansion in T Nagar, near the Mambalam station, full of hopefuls: it’s where directors Balaji Sakthivel (Kadhal) and KS Thangasamy (Raattinam) stayed when they were trying to make it big. Another in T Nagar called the Club House housed the famous actor-comedian Nagesh and later, lyricist Vaali.
For those who run away from their villages to realise their love for Tamil cinema - like Padma and Kumar - there is a knowledge that their dreams will be made in the Chennai neighbourhood called Kodambakkam. In Chennai’s west lies the greater Kodambakkam area - comprising Saligramam, Vadapalani and Valasaravakkam, and to an extent West Mambalam and T Nagar - home to the Tamil movie industry.
Forty two year old Ajayan Bala’s journey began in Pazhavanthangal, a suburb in Chennai. In 1995, inflamed by directorial ambitions, he moved to Kodambakkam where he stayed in a friend’s room at Director’s Colony and then to Samiyar Madam. Today, Bala, a writer-director resides comfortably in that cosy Kollywood hub, Saligramam.
Kodambakkam and Tamil cinema are inseparable bedfellows, just ask any Tamilian. Kodambakkam, according to one story, derives its name from when the Prince of Arcot kept his stables there. The “unpaved roads were often described as a ‘garden of horses’ or ‘ghoda bagh’” and thus the name became Kodambakkam. City historian V Sriram dismisses this theory and gives us a more probable one instead - that the earliest British records, dating back to 1661, refer to the place as ‘Corumbat’ and ‘Codamback’.
It was here that film studios were set up by the mid-1940s (the first studio to come up here was in 1935). Film historian Randor Guy writes that the Madras Electric Supply Corporation had built a power house in Kodambakkam but found no takers for it, which is why film studios were encouraged to establish their business there - there was Rohini, Film Centre, Bharani Studios, Vikram Studios, Golden Studios, Vauhini Studios and the world famous AVM. That’s how the area became the hub for Tamil cinema. Since studios were self-contained, all the shooting took place on sets. Kollywood was derived as an annoying yet inevitable portmanteau of Kodambakkam and Hollywood. And obviously, Kodambakkam became a subject for many movies and found a place in songs.
Raja Chinna Roja (1989) with Rajinikanth and Gautami in the lead was based on Raja’s (Rajinikanth) struggles to get into Tamil films - the early parts portray how difficult it was for an aspiring actor to find a house in the city while also trying to get noticed: Raja visits studio after studio in Kodambakkam. Recently, Cheran’s Maya Kannadi (Mirror of Illusion) and Velli Thirai (Silver Screen, starring Malayalam actor Prithviraj) portray similar epic scrambles by the heroes.
In that way, Kodambakkam was self-sufficient. Not only did it house studios, but it was also home for costume makers such as Nathrang & Co (which set up shop in 1900) and K Nadhamuni & Sons (established in 1910), which has now shifted to Sowcarpet in north Chennai. Back then there was a need for grand outfits of kings, queens and princes, for swords and wigs. But with the drop in mythology-based films, these shops stick to supplying to theatre companies or school plays.
The same trend is happening with studios. “There aren’t many studios anymore - shooting takes place everywhere else. In fact, in and around Kodambakkam is where a lot of TV actors, not film actors, prefer to stay for the proximity to studios,” says actor-historian Mohan Raman.
T Nagar, that bustling neighbourhood which lies to the south of Kodambakkam, a once well-planned and peaceful locality with parks, temples, playgrounds and housing area, attracted actors such as MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, NS Krishnan, Vyjayanthimala, NT Rama Rao, Manorama and Sivaji Ganesan, who all at one point (from the 1930s, Sivaji Ganesan’s family still resides there) took up residence there. Today, T Nagar has been transformed into a major shopping district, comprising Ranganathan Street with its wild traffic, Pondy Bazaar with its even wilder shoppers, Usman Road with its glittering gold shops and Panagal Park’s textile showrooms that never lack crowds.
In this part of Chennai, you can easily navigate by the stars. You could go from Sivaji Ganesan’s house on South Boag Road (now renamed after the actor to Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan Road) to Suriya to Simbu’s home. Ganesan’s house is a historic residence bought by the actor’s father 55 years ago which proudly shows off an art deco style facade.
The new crop of actors from Ajith to Dhanush however have expanded their real estate reach to Neelankarai, ECR, CIT Colony, Besant Nagar, in the affluent south.
Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, contemporaries and iconoclasts, have always done things differently - the former lives in Poes Garden in Alwarpet (his very famous neighbour was Jayalalithaa) and the latter on Eldams Road near Hotel Samco, also in Alwarpet - an upscale residential locality in central Chennai. Only recently, has Haasan’s modest landmark house been turned into his office with the actor taking up residence in Neelankarai, far away in South Chennai.
Miles to the east lies Nungambakkam - a leafy residential area complete with commercial establishments that makes it quite central to the city. At the intersection of Nungambakkam High Road and Mount Road lies the Gemini (named after the erstwhile Gemini studios that was situated nearby) or the Anna Flyover (as it’s now known) that is a staple in the establishing shots of most Tamil films. Mount Road has given Tamil cinema numerous locations to shoot at: The LIC Building, which has stood the test of time but has now given way to other landmarks. Spencer Plaza, a cult ‘90s favourite (it was a popular landmark back then; Shankar’s Boys featured the mall in the song Enakkoru Girlfriend Venumada), but for 40-something Ajayan Bala, the Film Chamber at Anna Salai (the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce) is where most of his memories reside, for it’s where he formed many of his scripts.
There was a time when hopefuls used to wait outside directors’ houses (because they couldn’t get into studios easily) to hand them their portfolios, explains Raman, and that there are people who still do - but in offices. “If you go to director Shankar’s office, a bunch of people will be waiting to hand over their photos which will be collected by the AD,” he says.
A lot has changed in as little as 10 years, explains Venkatachalapathy. “The pool of aspirants has become wide - they’re getting increasingly middle class; they’re graduates. Earlier, no one below the age of 35 could become a director, but now you have all these short cuts.” Short films, according to him, are one. Technology, is another, that has brought costs down. “Today, you can make a film with Rs 1 crore,” he says.
Where do the fans - as storied a feature of Tamil cinemas the heroes - appear in the geography of Chennai? Thirty-year-old Aditya* talks about several instances where AR Rahman’s fans have been known to do just about anything to meet him, wait any number of hours to meet him.
But for those who believe in the more direct, less serendipitous approach there is a new method to the madness.
Social media is the key to get into films, says an executive producer, who did not want to be named. “First, these kids go on Facebook and figure out which one of their friends has a common friend with the director they want to work with. Then they start working on the contact. Once they’ve established someone who will put them in touch with the director, they go all out: Send pictures, links to their Facebook page, short film list, portfolio, etc.”
It has to be also said that young upcoming actors these days are richer or slightly well off. Or they are ‘star’ kids or children of producers. So the requirement to go through rigorous steps of being noticed doesn’t quite exist.
Says Baskaran: “There are many film schools today - Rajiv Menon’s LV Prasad Film & TV Academy, Adyar Film Institute - where youngsters enroll and then get contacts.”
Fans are no different: “It used to be that fans would wait to meet stars like MGR or NTR outside their homes only because the shooting was confined to studios or villages. But now, shooting takes place all over the world. Moreover, actors are more than happy to interact with fans on social media. Or they have their various rasigar mandrams (fan clubs), and actors meet fans on their birthdays,” says Raman.
The need to hang out outside directors’ houses is a thing of the past: Kollywood is online, so are the strugglers and the fans. But every neighbourhood of Chennai is marked by cinema.
(In arrangement with Grist Media)
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