A Malayali who grew up in the North writes on falling in love with Tamil Nadu and its culture through an initiation that began with cinema.

Where cinema is celebration How Tamil films made a Malayali fall in love with TN
Flix Blog Saturday, May 26, 2018 - 11:33

The year was 2002 and it was Tamil New Year. My friends had decided it was time to take me, a pseudo Malayali with roots in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Dehradun, to Sathyam theatre and watch a Tamil film despite the fact that my knowledge of Tamil was extremely limited. It often involved me starting a conversation with ‘Macha’ or ‘Mama’ followed by speaking loudly and forcefully in Malayalam and ending it off with a ‘Da’ thrown in for continuity.

It was only the year before on our train journey to Chennai (Madras then) that my father had cautioned me that Chennai was nothing like Dehradun and that I should be prepared for a cultural shock. My first question to him like anyone who arrives in Tamil Nadu from the North of the Vindhyas was “People in Chennai speak Hindi or is it only Tamil?”

My father assured me that Tamil was nothing but a slightly different sounding version of Malayalam. Let’s just say my father oversimplified matters.

The film I was taken for was Gemini starring Chiyaan Vikram. I walked into the theatre without any expectations or notion of what the movie was about. It turned out to be a mass entertainer. The noise in the theatre was deafening, every time the hero would deliver a certain dialogue, the crowd will go into a frenzy of hooting, whistling and clapping.

“Punch dialogue da,” my friend explained in between all the noise.

At some point, parts of the audience broke into an impromptu dance when the song ‘O Podu’ was playing on screen. I had never seen anything like it. Now when I look back, I don’t remember much from the film but I do remember the electric atmosphere at Sathyam theatre bordering on mass hysteria.

I realised something that day. Watching a movie in a theatre in Tamil Nadu was nothing less than a celebration. The actors on the big screen were matinee idols. For the common people, it was a respite from the usual. Inside that dark theatre, all worries were forgotten and they could scream and shout and dance without a care in the world. I wanted to be a part of celebrations such as these and the first step was learning the language.

 I started asking around for movie recommendations and I found no dearth of information.  Tamilians have very strong allegiances when it comes to cinema and their actors and directors. Movies are not often referred to by titles but rather as “Rajini Padam”, “Kamal Padam”, “Ajith Padam”, “Mani Ratnam Padam”, “Bala Padam”, based on the actors or directors of the film.

 Alaipayuthey (2000), Mani Ratnam’s runaway romantic hit was my first choice. Why? Because I was young and I was in love. And I wasn’t disappointed with my choice because no one depicts love the way Mani Ratnam does.

After that, I started watching whatever Tamil films I could get my hands on. That meant I ended up watching a lot of riff-raff but an occasional a gem did pop up. Baasha, Thevar Magan, Munram Pirai, Guna, Mouna Ragam, Roja, Bombay, Thalapathi to name a few.

My horizons expanded and I understood that Kamal Hassan was more than that south Indian actor in Ek Duje Ke Liye and Rajini was much more than the cigarette flicking, sunglasses twirling supporting actor of Hindi films like Hum.

Tamil films were my gateway to understanding Tamil culture and the concept of Tamil pride. The language that once sounded loud and high pitched to me started sounding lyrical and melodious to my ears and I started looking at things around me differently. In the process, my Tamil improved by leaps and bounds.

Chennai too started growing on me, slowly but surely.

I started conversing more in Tamil with people around me. The fascinating thing was that although I was making a lot of mistakes while speaking, almost everyone I met and interacted with smiled kindly and went on to correct my Tamil without making fun of me or my strange Malayali-Hindi  Tamil accent.

“Parava ille macha, muyarchi pannuran da” (Not bad dude, he is trying to learn) was something I heard a lot during my school and college days.

Learning the language bought me closer to its people. I could make more conversations with the tea kada anna and the pakkathu veetu uncle. It is not that they wouldn’t have spoken to me in English or for that matter even in broken Hindi. It was just that once I started speaking Tamil, their faces used to light up. I realised it was not perfection that counted, it was the effort.

It has been almost 16 years since Gemini.  I am not a teenager trying to grapple with the language and the cultural shock anymore. Today I speak Tamil like a local and I can proudly say that it is a part of my culture.

 For a long time in my life, when people asked me where I was from, I used to have this confused look and started with what would be the beginning of a really long explanation.

But now when I get asked where I am from, I have a punch dialogue worthy answer:

“Malayali by birth, Tamizhan at heart da!”

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