The Madras they don’t tell you about
Novelist and scriptwriter Tamil Prabha opens up about the Chennai that’s under-acknowledged in pop culture, while sharing some details about Pa. Ranjith’s upcoming film, Salpetta
Photo credit: Pa Ranjith
It was the familiar, annual routine on social media, last Saturday, which marked the 381st Madras Day. Odes were showered on the city, and the usual, popular jewels—the beach, Classical music and dance, filter coffee, heritage buildings, the dosa-pongal-vadai triumvirate…—spoken about with love. Writer Tamil Prabha (the co-scriptwriter of Pa. Ranjith’s upcoming film, Salpetta) has no objection to the celebration of these familiar features. He’s just wondering why other equally important, historically relevant facets find such little acknowledgement. Take, for instance, the beef cuisine the city is famous for. Or how about Gujili songs that hold within them nuggets of the city’s truths? Tamil Prabha isn’t one for a lament, but his words drip with passion for the city and specifically, for its neglected. As he speaks with love for North Chennai—the beauty in its art forms and the sacrifices of its people—it’s impossible not to spot the yearning for wider acknowledgement of the city’s diversity.
The city’s identity, he says, is that it has no identity of its own, unlike a Thanjavur or a Madurai that was ruled by kings and has a past steeped in dramatic history. “When this city was created, it was a land of opportunity for those desperate to escape oppression and seek a new life,” he says. “Who do you think created all these landmarks: Central station, Binny Mills, the post offices… everything that we today value as heritage? But have we truly repaid them for these sacrifices, or have we simply relegated them to a corner we barely pay heed to?” This neglect, he says, has extended to any art forms generating from these localities too. “While the art of localities built around temples—like a Triplicane or a Mylapore—wears a crown of prestige and honour, what about the song and dance from places like Chintadripet and Vyasarpadi?”
Driven by the impact of this unequal recognition meted out to the city’s many cultures, Tamil Prabha wrote his debut novel, Pettai (released in 2017), which explores the origins of Chintadripet and the lives of its people. “I felt Tamil literature wasn’t really doing justice to its depiction of such places,” he explains. “Since I grew up in Chintadripet, I thought I should do something about it, and the book was the result of many conversations with the local people.” The writer feels strongly about this process of engaging in dialogue with the people of a community before writing about them, even if it’s only for a brief portion. It is for lack of this dialogue that many of our filmmakers, he says, are treating the marginalised and the poor as manipulative tools for audience appeasement, not unlike politicians who are after votes. Tamil Prabha cites the example of two Vijay films, Mersal and Sarkar, to make his point. “Vijay is in the slums in one scene. Suddenly, he’s in Madurai. Suddenly, he’s in Punjab. Before you know it, he’s a doctor. All this variety in depiction is clearly a strategy to appeal to different communities and it reeks of the absence of any desire to show authenticity or real care for a community.”
He also picks films from the 90s to show the disservice Tamil cinema has done to oppressed communities. “Growing up, I didn’t realise the damage that films like Chinna Gounder, Mudhal Mariyadhai, Ejamaan, and Naatamai, were doing. Today, I understand the effects such films had. I wonder what the wise men of the 90s were doing at the time of their release, and why they didn’t care that such films were normalising the idea that some communities were better than others,” he wonders. Now that a few members from oppressed communities have broken through into cinema, perhaps this is why their films have such a keen sense of place. “The landscape plays such a big part in our films because we have to offer a strong counterpoint to the damaging stereotypes propagated in our cinema over time; in Pennin Manadhai Thottu, for instance, a love track between Prabhudheva and the heroine is mounted on slum people being shown as pickpockets. Imagine the impact it would have had on a viewer from Trichy or Madurai.”
In Pa. Ranjith’s upcoming film, Salpetta, that’s about boxing in North Chennai, the setting naturally plays a big part. “We have listened to hours of conversation with boxers from North Chennai and tried our best to fictionalise them,” he says. Fiction, then, is much fact in such cinema. “Facts that have never been said in our cinema,” he says. “We have so much material for this film that we could well have made it a web series.”
He notices that there’s resistance to films about oppressed people, made by someone from within their community. “That’s why films like Draupadi are getting made. We are trying to say that we don’t want to be slaves anymore, and they are trying to assert their supremacy, under the guise of making a film about themselves,” he notes. “I urge everyone not to mistake our anger for hatred. Do not mistake our standing up for ourselves as an act of violence. We are just angry over the unjust treatment meted out to us for so long. We don’t hate you. We would love for you to listen and care.” He hopes that as a society, we will take inspiration from how Black art is consumed. “Nobody accuses it for being identity politics. They suffered from racism; we have casteism. But I remain optimistic about positive change. As we have more of these conversations, I believe our society will get better.”
The topic returns to Madras Day, and Tamil Prabha picks the Cooum river as his favourite landmark in the city. He thinks it’s the perfect metaphor for Chennai. “I urge people to take one of those Metro trains and pay attention to the cityscape. You will see the difference between those who live around the Cooum and those who live beyond…” He hopes that politicians, writers and filmmakers emerge from oppressed communities and believes that to be the solution to the problem of wrong representation.
Though many of his concerns are at the centre of this conversation about Madras Day and cinema, Tamil Prabha is eager to clarify that he’s no bemoaning, mirthless man. “I love a lot about Chennai. I love the body language of its people. I love their sense of humour. I love their fashion. Above all, I love how talented they are, even if our society hasn’t given them enough opportunities to exhibit that. As I said earlier, I’m optimistic, and it’s a word I recently learned from a friend. I like it because that’s how I feel about Chennai.”