An attempt to view Madras/Chennai through its songs
Who knows what type of day it would have been, but trust the Madras resident to come conclude that it would have been, like every day: a very hot one. The imaginative residents would have even got to the extent of picturing a sun burned and sweating exploring officer of the East India Company, pausing at this small and then insignificant sand bar on the Coramandel coast.
He could have gone further, but then he stopped.
The officer on duty was Francis Day, one of the neglected founding fathers of the city; the city they once called Madras and now we call Chennai. There are many tales as to why Day stopped here, it wasn’t even a natural harbor, so essential for the works of the company; the story of Madras is perhaps the most cinematic one; the one never told or explored by the dream spinners who now work in what widely circulated newspapers call Kollywood, a name which sounds so odd that you would like to say something nice after you mouth it.
But there has always been the beach, the coast that made the travelling Englishman stop has churned the memories of many a Tamil filmmaker. C.V. Sridhar often heralded as the first modern Tamil director shared Day’s enchantment and used to write all his scripts on the Marina and would shoot at least one scene there, his classic comedy Kadhalikka Neramillai (No time for love) was set entirely in the southern mountain retreat of Chinnamalai but that couldn’t prevent Sridhar from shooting this opening song on the sunny beach overlooking the Madras University, it is one of the most happiest openings in Tamil film and Sridhar’s sentiment with the Marina would continue all through, not far away a bridge named after a 19th century city Governor Francis Napier, the distinctly red lighthouse and the Indo-Saracenic architecture of the university buildings has also served countless location managers, the stretch of the Marina would be the most exploited, mostly for songs providing walking space for leading couples to ad lib while the composer’s music played out.
When the Marina is used, can Elliot’s be far behind; the city’s second favorite hangout has an added advantage of having a cenotaph to decorate the panoramic shots.
I do agree that there has been repetition in the Madras that appeared in songs; after all there can only be so many places of interest, so we can afford to forgive Mani Ratnam (who incidentally has a company called Madras talkies) for using the Chennai Museum complex for a dance recital and as a court-house. He famously used the college of Engineering for the same, but that is another matter.
Repetition too has some beauty, but that lies in the mind of the reciter, a song which begins with a sombrero wearing Manorama aptly titled Madrasa Sutti Paaka Poren (I am going to see Madras)is your quickest guide to the city, even makes fun of Lord Ripon after whom the Corporation headquarters is named; the same year (1994) also came Shankar’s Kadhalan (Lover)a song which quickened the pulse of a nation and also managed to capture Prabhu Deva taking over Madras from the top of distinctive green buses while people watch, mesmerized from the sides of the High Court and the LIC buildings, which I should take time to mention as Chennai’s Empire state, it is not much, but still it is ours.
Staying on the topic of LIC building as a symbol of the city, for years that umm…modest skyscraper and the Central Railways station has been used to the change in setting of any film, from the village to the big bad city; going to Pattinam(as Madras was called in the villages then) was considered an ill act.
Here in B&W Madras, the villager ponders over skyscrapers and how irresponsible the citizens are, the trend continues to this day; in a time where Tamil Cinema is moving southward to the raw rustic surroundings of Madurai and elsewhere; Chennai is often seen as a city of IT professionals who live fake lives and always speak English to the uneducated.
But the city silently bears all that, waiting for that rare moment where even the immigrants; these protectors of Tamil culture pause for a moment and realize what a ladder this city has been for them, on the other hand new blood from the city have not been silent as they had to deal with inter-zonal conflicts; eternally dividing the city into one of the haves and the have-nots; after all which city does not have boundaries.
But what many cities do not posses is a tongue of its own, rumored to have borrowed equally from English, Tamil, Sanskrit and Hindi, perhaps even German (who can say) is the Madras Baashai, no Tamil film attains completeness without a Zaam Bazzar Jaggu having his bichua knife ready to slice or singing songs on the banks of the foul-smelling holy Cooum: our ever unclean-able.
But how can I finish with the Cooum, so I return one last time to the cool Marina where it all began. Sivaji Ganesan here walks past innocently in search of a better tomorrow where his majestic statue now stands; a merger of worlds of sorts.
The clips in this document is far from complete, but have been assembled to give a fleeting glimpse of the city, many great songs and sites have been left behind and there are still many corners in the city to be explored and filmed, for who would have thought that the famous banyan tree in the Theosophical Society would have given ample shade to silent lovers or that a gully cricket match between the RA Puram Sharks and the Royapuram Rockers would mete out an amusing tale, if not for cinema. We will wait.
For mine is a laid back coastal city, till only recently sprouting signs of competing with the hustle of its colleagues; but somehow maintaining the warmth and air of welcome, I have never been anywhere else; but I have always been welcome at home. Maybe that is what made Francis Day stop, he probably felt home.