Malayalees’ dream city

Print edition : September 05, 2014

Madhu and Jyothilakshmi in “Nagarame Nanni” (1967), a film about the Malayalee dream of migrating to Madras. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A scene from “Newspaper Boy”, Malayalam’s first neorealist film. The protagonist goes to Madras to support his family back home. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Vijaya Vauhini Studios, a 1993 photograph. Until the 1970s, all Malayalam films were shot in the studios of Madras. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

City, oh city, that immense ocean

With frolic and smile on the surface

And slime and swirl beneath

Showering sweet smile outside

This damsel is a lover one can never part with.

Here, people love and quarrel,

And sink down in its alluring bondage

Like waves surging froth

Human beings wander here,

In this city, rushing forth,

How do I build my nest?

Thus goes one of the haunting Malayalam film songs of the 1960s, penned by the legendary lyricist P. Bhaskaran for the movie Nagarame Nandi (Oh City, Thanks!, scripted by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by A. Vincent,1967). The film portrayed the story of a typical middle-class youth of the time, whose only possible way to pursue the dream of asserting his identity and claiming his life was to migrate to the city. And Madirasi, or Madras, was that dream destination for Kerala youth in the first decades of the last century. Altough the dreams of the protagonist of Nagarame Nandi, who makes a living as a taxi driver in Madras, are eventually shattered, his dreams about the city, and also the frustrations it engendered, persisted for decades in Malayalam cinema.

Malayalam cinema, like all other south Indian cinemas, had symbiotic links with Madras from its beginnings. Even today, for any high-end technical support, the Malayalam film industry depends on Chennai film infrastructure and talent. Tamil cinema was always a dominant presence in Kerala, and a love-hate relationship of competition and admiration continues to this day. Stars like M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Sarojadevi, Vyjayantimala, and Jayalalitha were very much a part of the Malayalee cinematic imagination. Malayalees also secretly prided themselves on the fact that both the iconic hero and the arch villain of Tamil cinema (MGR and M.N. Nambiar) were from Kerala.

Until the 1980s, almost all Malayalam films were made in Madras; and so, it was the city towards which all artists, technicians, and producers gravitated. It was the total solution provider as far as film production was concerned as it had all the facilities—studios and labs, props and sets, equipment and gadgets, junior artists and stuntmen—at the film-maker’s beck and call. Naturally, it was the dream destination not only of film heroes, but of all young men and women who wanted to be part of that glamourous world. Madras city offered them the dream of getting a “lucky break” in cinema any time. Many who migrated to Madras lured by film dreams ended up as junior artists or light boys, while many others slowly sedimented into other sundry jobs in the city.

Before Bombay and West Asia became the favoured destinations for Malayalee youth who wanted to get away from the feudal setting back home and find a new life and the freedom of anonymity, Madras was the most desired and reachable city. Unlike Bombay, which was geographically distant and linguistically alien, Madras was very close to the hearts of Malayalees. And right from the beginning, Madirasi symbolised the city of Malayalee dreams. It was the capital of the Malayalam film industry, and until the 1970s, almost all the films were shot in the sets and studios of Madras, where you had the Kerala landscape painted as the backdrop and its rural settings and domestic architecture recreated piece by piece. All the Kerala villages and streets, huts and tharavads one saw on the silver screen were in fact sets in Madras studios, recreated by excellent art directors like S. Konnanat.

The memoirs and autobiographies of senior film-makers, actors and technicians in Malayalam cinema invariably contain a chapter on their “Kodambakkam days”—recounting the experiences and struggles in their early days in the dream city. A film version of that experience is recreated by Rosshan Andrews in Udayananu Tharam (Udayan is the Star, 2005), a film about the trials and tribulations of an aspiring film director (played by Mohanlal) in Madras.

Malayalees’ enchantment with Madras is enacted in that iconic shot that has been repeated in film after film for decades: that of the camera zooming out from the neon board “Madras Central Station”. Then, we see the protagonist setting foot in the city in search of life, livelihood and, inevitably, love. For the hero, it is a moment of great hope and also ambivalence and uncertainty. In many films, Madras city opens up a new world where the hero confronts the thrills and joys and disappointments and frustrations of a struggling youth all alone. This flaneur-like existence of the hero in the early phase of his life in the city has formed a persistent image of the city for Malayalee viewers. Likewise, the LIC building on Mount Road used to be a striking image of an urban, high-rise building in Malayalam cinema, and shots of the Marina beach, where life pulsates with possibilities of all kinds, exuded a similar charm. In popular Malayalee film discourse, Kodambakkam, the factory of tinsel world dreams, is the centre of everything associated with cinema—glamour and glitz and sleaze and scandals. Film after film set in Madras, through images of neon-lit streets and shops, cabarets, nightclubs, double-decker buses, high-rise buildings, promiscuous girls and palatial bungalows, constructed in Malayalee minds heir idea of a city that was alluringly close to them.

Madras city is a recurrent presence in Malayalam cinema. For instance, in an early film, Newspaper Boy (P. Ramdas, 1956), arguably the first neorealist film in Malayalam, it is to Madras that the protagonist, Appu, goes to support his family back home. In Marunattil oru Malayalee (A Malayalee in Another Land, A.B. Raj, 1971), the protagonist, played by the romantic hero Prem Nazir, impersonates a Brahmin to work in a “Brahmins’ Hotel” in Madras, only to find similar impersonations all around him.

Sasikumar’s Madrasile Mon (1982) was a crime thriller set in Madras based on a real-life incident. In Sathyan Anthikkad’s Nadodikkatu (1987), the Mohanlal-Sreenivasan duo, fooled by a conman who promises to take the pair to the Gulf, eventually reaches Chennai, where the rest of the narrative unfolds. In No.20 Madras Mail (Joshy, 1990), most of the narrative unfolds on the train by that name between Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.

Malayalee notions about rich and lavish interiors, dress codes, fashion, hairstyle (for instance, MKT hairstyle was a rage in Kerala too, observes M.T. Vasudevan Nair in one of his Madras sketches), and so on were moulded and nurtured in Madras as most of the sets, stylists, art directors and dance directors were drawn from the common pool of Kodambakkam film establishments. Malayalee viewers were as familiar with studios like AVM, Vijaya Vauhini and Gemini as those in Kerala like Udaya and Merryland. Madras/Chennai was also the place where film gods and goddesses spent their everyday lives, even while they sparkled on silver screens.

Even in this age when distances have shrunk and new destinations of migration and livelihood have opened up before contemporary Malayalee youth, Chennai has a resonance of its own. The city still lives in the Malayalee cinematic imagination through Tamil films, which command not only a wide and burgeoning viewership but also huge amounts for territorial rights that vie with those of the local superstars. The youth icons of Tamil filmdom like Vijay, Surya and Dhanush keep the magic and allure of Chennai alive in Malayalee minds.

C.S. Venkiteswaran

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