City of stars
On the occasion of Madras Day, we talk to actor and film historian Mohan V Raman on how the city and cinema have evolved over the years
Tamil cinema is popularly referred to as Kollywood, whether we like it or not. It’s Kodambakkam’s version of Hollywood, as imagined by someone. But of course, it isn’t just Kodambakkam, but the whole city of Chennai that has played an integral part in moulding not just the Tamil film industry, but the whole South industry in many ways. Actor and film historian Mohan V Raman is among those who have seen how the industry has evolved over the years. “The viewing experience itself has changed over the decades, and filmmaking as an art has evolved. From analog to digital, from Carnatic music to Anirudh's dubstep, from single screens to multiplexes, the change I have witnessed firsthand has been tremendous," he says.
Among the most notable transformations is the disappearance of single screens in the city. “They still flourish in the B and C centres, and in the city's outskirts. But the ones in the city like Anand, Sapphire, Raja, Paragon, Wellington and Midland have all disappeared. It is a clear indication that the next generation experiences films differently,” he says. “Those days, it was about watching a film and returning home. It was a focused experience. But today, they like to spend hours in a mall before or after the film." The Chennai audience has changed over time, he says. "Theatres back then attracted the family audience, especially the women. The noon show was, in fact, introduced keeping the women in mind, so that they could return by four to receive their children from schools."
Mohan recounts some of his fondest memories in some of the theatres that have now shut down. "I saw my first Hindi film, Taj Mahal, in Midland theatre during the 60s. I watched Palum Pazhamum with my grandmother in Shanthi. I still can't forget my first James Bond film experience in Casino and the old man who denied entry to me as I wasn't yet 18. I missed Dr. No because of that but got to watch Thunderball later." He talks of ‘cartoon festivals’ in the theatres. "From 10 am to 1 pm on Sundays, they would play episodes of Tom and Jerry, Disney and Looney Tunes.”
He is pained that we have failed to document these changes. "As a film historian, it hurts to know that there's not a copy of even one of the 150 silent films we made before 1930. We've gathered whatever data remained from old newspapers. Before the censor board came in, there were no records either." He also complains about the lack of knowledge on how to preserve old photographs. "When we laminate a document or a photograph, it will only last about 12 years. After that, the lamination will start peeling off and the papers will split. They will begin to get destroyed completely." He points out how even Mani Ratnam was struggling to get a copy of Nayagan. “One solution is for school children to go on a heritage tour across the city, in an attempt to educate them about our past.”
But not everything about Chennai has changed. "Worship of actors persists. Only the names of actors have changed. In fact, it has increased, I’d say." On how aggressive fan rivalry used to be, he says, "A group of fans would go to their rival star's film and hoot when the hero cries in the film. This would lead to skirmishes. Cow dung used to be splattered on the posters of rival stars,” he says. “Today, it has evolved to posting memes on the internet." The other aspect which hasn’t changed, according to him, is the formula with which commercial films are made. “The very first film shot in the South, Keechaka Vadham, had action, sex and emotion. It’s a formula that endures."