How Malayalam cinema has portrayed the Madras dream over the years

Malayalam cinema has always shared a close bond with Madras/Chennai, and the portrayal of the city in Malayalam films has gradually changed over the years.
Pranav Mohanlal in Hridayam
Pranav Mohanlal in Hridayam
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In Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Hridayam (Heart), an earnest Arun Neelakandan (Pranav Mohanlal), who’s on his way to Chennai to pursue an engineering degree, asks a former student what the city is like. The response he gets from the fellow Malayali is that when it’s time for him to leave, the city will tug at his heartstrings. A dreamy Arun lands in Chennai, with a Tamil song in the background that celebrates Tamil Nadu’s beloved tradition of welcoming outsiders — vantharai vaazha vaikkum Tamizh Nadu.

Bengaluru, in contemporary Malayalam cinema, has often been portrayed as the city of adventure where Malayalis lose their inhibitions and experiment with lifestyle choices. Several Malayalam films like 100 Days of Love and Bangalore Days have referenced Bengaluru as the city where Malayali characters, mostly from upper middle class and privileged sections, discover freedom and subsequently, themselves.

But before Bengaluru became the land of dreams, Madras or Chennai, the first metro city to appear in several Malayalam films, was often portrayed as the land of hope and possibilities. The focus though was more on the city offering employment and livelihood opportunities than individualistic pursuits; the storylines too centered mostly on the poor and the lower middle class. This, however, is changing, with the latest example being Hridayam.

Watch: 'Darshana' song from Hridayam

The bond between Madras and Malayalam cinema

Malayalam cinema has always had a close relationship with Madras. Vigathakumaran, the very first Malayalam film, was directed by businessman JC Daniel. It was shot in his own studio in Thiruvananthapuram and released in 1928. To direct the film, Daniel visited Madras to learn filmmaking techniques and purchase equipment. The city was the capital of film production for south Indian cinema and had various studios where films were shot. However, Daniel’s visit wasn’t successful and he was denied entry into many studios. He later travelled to Mumbai, then Bombay, and picked up the required skills and equipment.

But it was not until the 1940s that Malayalam films began to be made frequently, with the support of the state government. For some years, filmmaking in Kerala was centered in Thiruvananthapuram. Later, however, it shifted to Chennai/Madras. It was only in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that the Malayalam film industry moved back to Kerala, with most films being made in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi.

Considering the affinity between the Malayalam film industry and Madras, it is not surprising that the city was often mentioned in Malayalam cinema as a land of possibilities. In an article titled Malayalees’ dream city, film critic CS Venkiteswaran quotes lyricist P Bhaskaran’s song from the film Nagarame Nandi that praises the vast city and the opportunities that it offers. The 1967 film, written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by A Vincent, is about a Malayali family from a Kerala village that migrates to Madras in the hope of a better life.

Watch: Nagarame Nandi

“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,” CS Venkiteswaran writes, pointing out that as early as 1956, there was Newspaper Boy, a Malayalam film that had the protagonist going to Madras to earn a livelihood.

Many Malayalam films were shot in studios in Madras and several of them were also set in Madras. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when unemployment and migration was a major theme in Malayalam films, several stories had the hero traveling to Madras in search of a job. Some examples include Prem Nazir’s Marunattil Oru Malayali (1971, AB Raj), Mohanlal’s Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikunnu (1988, Priyadarshan), and the evergreen Nadodikattu (1987, Sathyan Anthikkad) where the protagonists land in Madras believing it to be Dubai. These films documented the trials and tribulations of the characters in a new land and culture while struggling to feed themselves.

The 1990 film No.20 Madras Mail, directed by Joshiy, is a murder mystery where a young woman is found dead in a train toilet and a group of drunk men is accused of killing her. Mohanlal played the role of Tony Kurishingal, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman, who’s on his way to Madras to watch a cricket match and have fun with his friends. It’s perhaps among the few times in Malayalam cinema from that era that going to Madras was not shown as a sign of desperation to escape the circumstances back home.

By the early 2000s, Madras had become Chennai, and Malayalam films too had moved on from their preoccupation with middle class job aspirations. Sathyan Anthikkad’s Yathrakarude Sradhakku (2002), starring Jayaram and Soundarya, is about a man and woman who end up living in the same house despite not being in a relationship because of a paucity of good rented spaces for single occupants. They pretend to be married for the sake of appearances. However, though they are in Chennai for work, the film’s focus is on the comedy of errors and misunderstandings arising from the facade that they maintain.

Chennai in new age Malayalam films

Tamil films have always been popular in Kerala, and a section of the audience in Tamil Nadu too has followed Malayalam films closely. With multiplexes running films with subtitles and Over-the-Top platforms narrowing the gap between cultures, many more viewers watch content from the neighbouring state. Chennai is not quite the ‘marunaadu’ (other land) that it used to be.

Besides, many of the young generation filmmakers and actors have spent several years in Chennai and understand the city as an insider and don’t view it with an exoticising lens.

For instance, Hridayam is loosely based on Vineeth Sreenivasan’s experiences at an engineering college in Chennai. Unlike earlier Malayalam films that showed a few iconic symbols of Chennai like the Madras Central Station or the LIC building, the film captures the essence of the city from its beaches to the roadside eateries and narrow gullies with perennial water scarcity. Though the main characters are all Malayalis, there is also a significant Tamil character in the film [Selva].

Alphonse Puthren’s first film was the Tamil-Malayalam bilingual Neram, set in Chennai. The story revolves around a computer engineering graduate who loses his job (Nivin Pauly), and decides to elope with his girlfriend (Nazriya), only to be embroiled in criminal activities. Like Vineeth, Alphonse also studied in Chennai, earning a diploma in filmmaking. His second film, the coming-of-age drama Premam, ran for a record 275 days in Chennai. Although the film is set in Kerala, one of the women leads is a Tamil character called Malar Miss (Sai Pallavi). The success of the film paved the way for more cross-cultural representations in Malayalam cinema.

Vineeth’s brother, Dhyan Sreenivasan, previously made his directorial debut with Love Action Drama, starring Nivin Pauly and Nayanthara. The film is a modern take on the Malayalam comedy classic Vadakkunokkiyanthram, and is about a man with an inferiority complex who is forever suspicious of his wife. While the original was set in Kerala, the latter film is set in Chennai.

When Anoop Sathyan, veteran director Sathyan Anthikkad’s son, made his directorial debut, it was with a film set in Chennai — Varane Avashyamund. It was produced by Dulquer Salmaan, another ‘Chennai boy’ who did a part of his schooling in the city. The film is about a middle-aged woman [Shobhana] with an adult daughter who falls in love.

Watch: Trailer of Varane Avashyamund

Not only do these filmmakers approach Chennai differently, they also see the potential in expanding the reach of their film by including actors who are popular in both the states or giving an important role to a Tamil character [Malayalam superhero film Minnal Murali had Guru Somasundaram playing the super villain]. The themes, too, are urban and aspirational, cutting across linguistic and cultural barriers.

It would seem that while Bengaluru remains Las Vegas to the Malayali in Kerala, Chennai has become ‘Namma Chennai’ over the years. A land of hope still, just not as alien as it used to be.

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