Madras Day Special: Iconic Chennai landmarks and how they have been shown in films
Madras—we are nostalgic like that—celebrates its 380th birthday on August 22. It may be called Chennai now, but as Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There are various ways to archive this city — photographs, books, memoirs — we choose cinema. The Marina beach, for instance, has seen Nagesh walking in it, feeling lost in the big bad city, and about 45 years later, seen Sivakarthikeyan falling in love. The bridge on which MGR pedalled his rickshaw over is the same one that many decades later, saw Madhavan and Suriya facing off in a Mani Ratnam film. Here are some aspects of the city that are intrinsic to its identity, and how they have found depiction in our cinema.
It has been a long-standing rule in Tamil cinema that to establish that a story is set in Chennai, all you need to do is have a shot of the Central. Or as it is now named (but not called), Puratchi Thalaivar Dr MG Ramachandran Central Railway Station. The station has seen the heartbreak of many a lover; this is also where countless others have united. How can one forget Devyani in Kadhal Kottai, clutching a knitted sweater, and running to find Ajith? It’s in this station that Srikanth and Bhumika unite in Roja Kootam too. ‘Idhayam’ Murali sheds tears into a water bottle here. These are three of innumerable examples of love in Central. Meanwhile, our electric trains have been turned into stunt locations with heroes often rescuing their damsels in distress. Be it the encounter of Prabhu with molesters in Agni Natchathiram, the mass-y fight of Vijay in Pokkiri, or the faceoff Rajinikanth has with a battalion of thugs in Enthiran, you know when our hero enters an electric train that we are in for a treat.Railway stations in our films aren’t all about the Central, of course. Remember Tambaram station in which Madhavan and Shalini exchange romantic gazes. Remember Egmore Railway station in which Prabhudheva awed us with his dancing ability for the iconic Chikku Bukku Rayile. Egmore looks set to be the home of many more stories, given Vijay’s upcoming film, Bigil, is being shot at a huge set resembling the station.
Basking on the beach
Be it the iconic Marina Beach or the more upscale ‘Bessy beach’ with its landmark Karl Schmidt Memorial, Madras’ beaches have several faces, each more distinct than the other. Love, childhood, innocence, the loss of it—for Chennaites, these sands and waters have seen them all. Good luck separating beaches from the very fabric of Chennai’s life.
In our cinema, beaches have largely been the setting for smaller, sweet nothings between characters. A montage, a shot in a song — no love story set in Chennai will be complete without their presence. Remember Mannipaya, where Jessie and Karthik find each other’s hands with the beach in the backdrop? Or the scene in Iragai Pole (Naan Mahan Alla) where a boy who sells sundal, interrupts a romantic moment between the leads?
The charm of our beaches and surrounding architecture in our cinema isn’t recent, of course. Jog down memory lane and you will find Kadal Oram Vangiya Kaatru from MGR’s Rickshawkaran (1971), that was shot on (now known as) the Broken Bridge. Another would be Madras Nalla Madras from Anubavi Raja Anubavi (1967). Just watch Nagesh walk along the sands with the Labour statue and Gandhi statue in the backdrop, singing “Kaathu vaanga beach pakkam kaathu nikkum koottame (crowds waiting to enjoy the sea breeze).” The decades have passed, but things haven’t changed at all, have they? Our beaches have contributed in more significant ways to our film scapes as well. Sivakarthikeyan’s Marina seems to have been inspired by life on the eponymous Beach. There’s also Marina Puratchi, based on the Jallikattu protests that happened on Marina, a project that is in limbo. It is safe to say that the beaches will continue to be scribes of the city’s joy and sorrow.
Malls of Madras
The evolution of Chennai from Madras can perhaps most easily be documented by the arrival of malls in the city. It started with Spencer Plaza, the oldest shopping mall in our country, and a place that has been around for so long that it featured in even a period film like Madarasapattinam. Fast forward to the 1990s, and you cannot forget the hilarious scene from the 1998 film Harichandra that was staged at Prince Plaza, another famous mall in Chennai. Let’s move to the early 2000s, and you will see Vinay dancing merrily to Harris Jayaraj’s Unnale Unnale in Citi Centre. You will see Jiiva’s eyes searching a crowd in Ampa Skywalk for his lover in Ko; you will see Ajith and Trisha taking a stroll in Mazhaivara Poguthey (Yennai Arindhaal) by the Express Avenue. And now this year, we got the Yogi Babu-starrer Gurkha which supposedly was the first Tamil film to be almost completely be shot in a mall. Although the mall was not named in the film, we know that it was shot predominantly at Forum Vijaya Mall. Next time you watch a film, don’t forget to spot our malls!
On the move
“Meter ku mela pottu kudunga (pay above the metered charge).” “Chillarai illadhvan vandila eraadha (do not enter if you do not have change).” “Station vandhaa ezhupareengala? (will you wake me up when we arrive at the station)” If you are a Chennaiite, these are everyday catchphrases. Tamil cinema scarcely misses an opportunity to showcase the quirks of our public transport. Buses have been a ubiquitous presence in our cinema. Starting from En Kanmani Un Kadhali and Chittu Kuruvi, to Arabu Naade and Thottal Poo Malarum, to the recent Area Gaana, buses have often been where our quintessential hero has met the heroine. They needn’t be filled to the limit, as they usually are. Empty buses have doubled up as romantic nests for our heroes in Theri, Remo and Ghajini, all films in which the lead couple has its first intimate conversation in a bus. Let’s not forget the camaraderie and fun our heroes have had in films like Attakathi, Kadhal Desam, and Kadhalan. While on public transport, there is no forgetting our autos, like them or hate them. After Baasha, all our neighbourhood auto drivers seemed like the Superstar. In this space, we couldn’t hope to do justice to the extensive portrayal of autos in our cinema, and the roles they have played in taking the narrative forward. We will simply leave you with the line, ‘Nanmai vandhu serum, nee nambi vandhu yeru’ (which roughly translates to: Trust us and hop on, you won’t regret it).
It used to be a shot of the Central or the Marina that would establish Chennai in our films earlier. Not anymore. The go-to idea now in the age of drones, is the cloverleaf-shaped Kathipara flyover. Flyovers and bridges in the city, by extension, are not just the lifelines of city traffic; they are also important shooting spots. Want to show a city coming to a standstill? A traffic jam on the iconic Anna flyover (Shankar films). Want to shoot a tense stand-off between two leads? Make them stand opposite each other on the Broken Bridge (Chennai 600028, Aaytha Ezhuthu). Filmmakers have used these bridges to showcase proposals, chase sequences, and sometimes, even cold-blooded murders. If Gautham Menon has taken a liking to the Adyar flyover to show killings, director Prem set the romantic walks between Ram and Jaanu in 96 over the T Nagar flyover. Kodambakkam bridge, one of the oldest in the city, has been shown many hundreds of times during the black-and-white era in various films. These films remind us that while the city is its beaches, its railway stations, and its food, it is also its bridges and flyovers.