“What is so attractive about a big city?” a voice asks us in K Balachander’s Pattina Pravesam (1977), a film that sees a modest family of six move to Chennai to make a new life. “Inga kooli thukiravan kuberanaga ponadhum undu, kuberanaanavan koolikaran aga ponavanum undu (Here, a pauper can find riches, and the rich too could turn into paupers),” we are told as the camera freezes on a brilliant shot of the family looking up at a high rise in the posh Nandanam neighbourhood of the seventies.
These two scenarios inevitably end up deciding the big dreamer’s life in a big city, with the cinematic tradition running strong up until today. This analogy doesn’t just stop with a person’s fortunes. Either love is found in the strangest of places in Chennai (Kamal Haasan and Khushbu in Singaravelan) or is painfully lost (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abbas in Kandukondain Kandukondain). A home is made (Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Maanagaram) or tragically shattered (Kamal Haasan’s Mahanadhi). As Tamil films have taught us, it is always one of the two.
In Pattina Pravesam, a family moves from their village to the city in the hopes of turning their luck around. But Madras doesn’t seem to hold good news for them. Murugan (a superb Delhi Ganesh in his debut) is devastated when he finds out that his friend and only source of hope in the city has moved without a trace. The family does end up finding a cheap roof above their heads, but just when they start to dream, their lives swivel. “Madras la ellame oru baavana dhaan (Everything is an act in Madras),” someone tells us early on in the film, as the family realises that Chennai is not what they made it up to be. Pattina Pravesam has incisive takes on Chennai’s skyrocketing rents and water crisis, something that hasn’t changed over the past 45 years. The city not only breaks the brothers’ bank, but also their relationship.
Mahanadhi (1994) opens with a chilling metaphor of tragedy and Chennai — a shot of flowing fresh river water transitions into the still grimy water from the Cooum. Krishnaswamy (Kamal Haasan) in Mahanadhi is wealthy and content with his life in a village in Kumbakonam. But the single father dreams of giving his bright children an even better life, which can only mean moving to a big city. In the hopes of enrolling their kids into a swanky school and driving them around in a Benz, he sets off to Chennai and invests in a chit fund company. But everything that can go wrong, does. He is mercilessly cheated, his children are pushed to poverty and prostitution, while he is pushed to murder. “Pattanathula mariyadhaye kidayadhu (there is no respect for anyone in this city),” says his wise mother-in-law, almost immediately after stepping into the city. While Krishnaswamy laughs it off, he realises the meaning of these words only after her death. “Kannagi was right to burn it all down," he says, as he walks along Chennai’s cooum, giving up to get the stench out of the city.
The middleman is the entire issue in Manikandan’s Aandavan Kattalai — be it the passport brokers who intervene and make his dream to find work in London a nightmare, or Chennai city itself, which is a sort of a “middleman” in itself that fills him up with hopes of shortcuts to success. He gets his first taste of the city by meeting landlords with vicious restrictions. "Your house would probably be the size of the entrance of my house in the village. How can you treat us so terribly?" he asks his landlord. The hogwash of a big city dream was dealt with a lighter hand in Siddique-Lal’s Nadodikattu (1987), which had Mohanlal and Sreenivasan in the lead, desperate to get out of Kerala. Their eyes are set on Dubai and readily get smuggled out of the city to “Arabian shores” via sea. But when they set foot into the city, they realise that they have been swindled into Chennai’s Marina beach and not Dubai’s Jumeirah. Vivek suffers a similar, if not an even more distressing deception in 2002 Tamil comedy Run (2002), in which Chennai leaves him kidney-less and penny-less in a matter of a few days. He enters the city with smug smiles, which the city turns into vapid cynicism by the end of his run in the film.
Nivin Pauly’s Oru Vadakkan Selfie (2015), saw Nivin Pauly’s Umesh flee Chennai just six days after realising how tough it is to make it in Kollywood once he sees six-year strugglers. But the city (and an unfortunate selfie) inadvertently ends up changing his life. Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Maanagaram (2017) is an interesting outlier in how it views the city — neither does it romanticise the city, nor does it completely rip it apart. The film begins (ironically enough on Madras Day) with two men from a small town entering Chennai with two personal goals — Sri wants to get a job to impress her lover’s family, and Charle wants his ill son to get the treatment he deserves. The city roughens them up over the course of the film, as the two men get embroiled in Chennai’s underbelly. While the city frustrates them, it also teaches them the meaning of resilience. Love it or hate it, you can never leave the city. “Indha ooru odu raasiye adhan,” says Charle, nudging Sri to look past his cynicism.
Romance has held a significant position in the landscape of “Chennai films”. So, we see characters migrating to the city for love as much as they do for lady luck. In Singaravelan, Velan lives a satisfying life in his small village, where animals and humans coexist. He is forced to come to Chennai to find his long-lost uncle’s daughter. So, there is no sense of wonderment on his part when he steps into the city at Central, auto drivers bustling around their newest “safari”. In a hilarious Chennai moment, he tells the auto driver to stay away from the stinky Cooum route, even while carrying funky-smelling karuvaad (dried fish) by the dozen. Keeping aside the fact that the film is unsettlingly dated (read stalking and casual harassment), Singaravelan is one of the earliest examples of a small-towner finding love in a big city.
Roles are reversed in May Madham (1994) and Engeyum Epodhum (2011), where the woman falls not just for the quirks of the city, but also for its men. In May Madham, Sandhya (Sonali Kulkarni) flees Ooty to escape her engagement and her icy father and lands up at the Central station with a head full of dreams and Rs 1000. But the second she enters the city, her bag is stolen, inexplicably leading her paths to cross with a bitter photographer in Chennai, who struggles to make ends meet. Sandhya is also that rarity in this line of films, who isn’t easily weakened by her troubles. Having endured her “Hitler” of a father (The film is also home to one of the best lines on the dictator: “I might be your Hitler, but you’re my Germany,” he tells her) for over 20 years, Sandhya isn’t deterred by petty thefts or deceiving crooks. Her big heart and her bigger smarts make her the perfect Chennai vaasi.
Amudha (Ananya), on the other hand, is extremely wary of Chennai and its crooked men when she enters the Koyambedu bus stand— reflecting the mindset of a modern woman’s anxieties in a city filled with self-assertive men. But the first man (Sharwanand) she sees, helps her navigate Chennai, changing her mind about the city and himself. “Chennai la pala mugam, pala kadhai iruku,” Gautham says. “There are bad people here just as much as anywhere else.”
And then of course there have been heartbreaks, for what is love without pain? In Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondein Kandukondein, we see a dizzying romance unfold between Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and Srikanth (Abbas) in Karaikudi, where Meenakshi stays with her sisters and mother in a sprawling mansion. The romance takes a nosedive and realities emerge when Meenakshi and her family are forced out of their house and made to find work in Chennai. The city is a silent onlooker, observing some of the sisters’ lowest moments in the film — Meenakshi drowns (quite literally in an open pothole, but eventually survives), having just realised that her lover has left her for another woman in the city, while Sowmya (Tabu) grapples with her fraying relationship with Manohar (Ajith), a filmmaker finding his foot in Kollywood.
In Hridayam, Malayali college student Arun Neelakandan (Pranav Mohanlal) learns the true meaning of life in Chennai, a city that is exceedingly good to him. He thrives, falls in love, falls out of love, falls down, and gets up to get a second chance at life, all in the warm embrace of the forgiving city. The filmmaker’s love for the undying spirit of the metropolis is evident in every frame of Hridayam. “How is Chennai?” Arun asks a senior on his way to Chennai by train. “Once you board your train after four years of studies, you’ll feel as if someone is tugging at your heartstrings. At that moment you will realise what Chennai is,” he is told. Arun understands the meaning of this when he leaves the city four years later, with a smile pasted on his lips as he takes the train back to Kerala. In a list of Chennai’s complicated relationship with its outsiders, Hridayam is an unabashed romanticisation of the city. And what can we say, Arun is undeniably blessed by the Chennai gods.