The release of Modern Love's Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai seasons proved what a city's character adds to a love story. Modern Love Chennai (MLC), irrespective of its shortcomings, shines in portraying the city. One of the most beautiful and heart-warming moments centered on the city in this anthology can be found in the opening credits. As the background score of Yuvan Shankar Raja’s ‘Yaayum Gnaayum’ plays, many sights — ranging from the railway station to the merry-go-round on the beach and roadside eateries— the soul of the city and the people that make it is beautifully illustrated in those doodles.
But the episodes take this depiction one step further, as they explore the least explored streets of Chennai, telling love stories from its many mundane corners. Akshay Sunder, director of episode Margazhi in the series, says “Love is the same. But love stories set in each region are different. Elaa edathulayum irukura love ah kaatanumdrathu mukkiyama iruku (It is important to show the kind of love that exists in different places).”
Omnipresence of the city in adaptations
A Modern Love article in The New York Times titled 'An Optimist Guide to Divorce' opens with two women in a parlour, getting ready for the big day — the court’s final judgment for divorce. While one of them is getting divorced, the other woman is her husband's lover. This one scene speaks volumes about the relationship the two women share. The adaptation of this article in Modern Love Chennai is Bharathiraja's Paravai Kootil Vazhum Maangal. When I asked my editor why this scene was omitted in the adaptation, he pointed out that the story is set in a middle-class Chennai household and this exact scene wouldn’t fit in. Besides the changes in the film, the city and the lifestyle also influences the narrative. This bonding is instead portrayed as the women chat over a cup of coffee on the terrace, and is reestablished during their meeting on the beach. And the city’s lifestyle is beautifully conveyed through the metro journeys, the apartments, and mostly by the doodles scribbled by their kids on the old walls. It is through such adaptations that the city’s importance as a character comes through — of its influences on its people, their habits, behaviour and beliefs.
Another remake that would back this statement is Ghilli (2004). A remake of the Telugu film Okkadu (2003), a lot of changes were made to the screenplay, making it a very original product of Kollywood. As a result, what becomes an important character in the film, which witnesses some of the best conversations between the lead couple, Vijay and Trisha, is the lighthouse (it is Charminar in Okkadu). When they run out of options to hide, the light radiating from the lighthouse shines bright on their face, guiding them like it always helps the fishermen. And when they reach its top, the calming waves and the vastness of the city makes their worries seem small and trivial. Vijay tells Trisha, “This lighthouse is the Eiffel Tower of Chennai.”
When we talk about a city and how it is treated as a character, we often restrict it to its important monuments and touristy places. But sometimes it is not just that. It is also about how the people of that city, of that particular area, think and behave. Their likes and dislikes, experiences and expectations are shaped by the city. While Boomika asks Mahesh Babu to get her pani puri in Okkadu, Trisha asks for kaara pori in Ghilli. These little touches make a story, especially a love story which is about internal factors and emotions more than anything external, rooted and relatable. In a sense, the city then comes alive through its culture and lifestyle.
Modern Love: A Modern Glance At Unexplored Chennai
Be it the Marina Beach, Napier Bridge, Railway Station, Semmozhi Park, Sathyam Cinemas and Mayajaal — or the ECR drive, poshness of south Chennai and the criminal world of north Chennai — these recurring elements in Kollywood romances became the stereotypical representation of the areas like the filter coffee and idli sambhar brand of the city. MLC focused on expanding this representation. Akshay asserts, “The core idea of the anthology was to show the different terrains of Chennai and how people living there approach life and love.”
The Anglo-Indian set-up and the Christian lifestyle of areas around St Thomas Mount are portrayed in Margazhi. What makes it more authentic is the peeling paint on the walls, the odd shape of the mirror, and the rusted gates. It is definitely not a part of Vada (north) Chennai, which is often the home to such environs. And it isn't the luxury side of south Chennai either. It is rather a depiction of a middle-class household in one of the lesser-explored parts of Chennai. The house in the episode is 120 years old, Akshay tells us. "Even people from Adambakkam, Madipakkam know only the place and the station, 90% of them wouldn’t have taken the stairs that lead to this beautiful place. After watching the short, an Anglo-Indian messaged saying, 'Those stairs man! A lot of love stories have started and ended there. It was very nostalgic.'"
Both Akshay and Balaji Tharaneetharan (writer of Marghazhi) remark that when you see the beautiful hills and its streets, you will wonder “Chennai city kulla ipdi oru edam ah! (Is it a place in Chennai?!). Halitha Shameem, whose Sillu Karupatti (2019) beautifully depicts romance across ages and different areas of the city, says, "Modern Love Chennai has shown the city that we normally see in real life. Director Balaji Shaktivel is someone who wants to keep everything real. In his short Imaigal in MLC (which was also written by Balaji Tharaneetharan), the conversation between Ashok Selvan and TJ Bhanu happens on Ranganathan Street (a popular shopping street in Chennai). They talk as they wait for a cab, and slowly it turns into an argument. Ashok storms off. As TJ Bhanu sits down, the shopkeepers and people who pass by in the busy street constantly notice her anger. And they watch even as they reconcile. Only through such shorts am I slowly seeing the real contemporary Chennai."
Love in the tourist destinations of Chennai
Speaking of Ranganathan Street, also known as T Nagar, makes it impossible to miss director Vasanthabalan's Angadi Theru (2010). We all come across the huge textile stores and the staff who work there, who keep running from pillar to post all day long, as they display different clothes in the stores. The film portrays the employee's day-to-day struggles and how a duo working in one such store falls in love with each other. Except for a song and a few other scenes, you always see them in uniforms. And what brings them close is often the problems they face in the store. A popular tourist spot in Chennai, which is shown in glances in films like Santhosh Subramaniyam (2008), the busy street in Chennai suddenly looks more cramped than ever, as the lens shifts its focus from the customers to the staff, and breathes relief only through their romance.
Films like Marina (2012) and Goli Soda (2014) are other examples that explore life and love in that areas that are often shown as tourist spots in fleeting moments in films. While the romantic side of Marina focuses on a couple meeting regularly on the beach, Goli Soda is about youth romance set in the Koyambedu vegetable market.
City as a character: Authenticity, Believability, Reliability
Halitha, Balaji and Akshay see eye to eye as they speak about the importance of a city in a film. While Halitha says it adds a liveliness to the film, Balaji points out that it makes the story authentic and reliable. He says, "For me, the story matters the most. But for everyone to enjoy the story with authenticity, it works better when we know where it is situated. For instance, I like 7G Rainbow Colony (2004) because of its setup. It is a middle-class household in a housing board colony. He falls in love with his new neighbour. There are common shuttle courts, and children play cricket in the streets. And they also celebrate annual ceremonies during New Year in the colony. When you show a love story set in such a culture, there is a lot more believability and reliability; the impact is also better."
While Akshay says the terrain helps the viewers understand why certain character behaves the way they do, Halitha says that she writes stories that she observes and experiences. So when she sets out to tell that narrative, the city and the area automatically become an essential part. In Sillu Karupatti, when she wanted to narrate the story of how two old people fall in love, the diabetic centre that she visits with her mother and the turtle walks on the beach that is famous in Chennai immediately became a part of the story, and the city came alive.
The North, south and everything in between
When I saw the rustic gates in Margazhi, I was constantly reminded of another film where a gate is given a lot of importance. But they aren't rustic, they are white, luxuriously white with no dirt or patches. It is the gate in Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (2010), the one Karthik rests on and opens when Jessie walks in.
"Vetri Maaran focuses on having the sodium lamps in north Chennai instead of the new bright street lights, it adds a certain layer to the stories and brings in the old vibes. On the other hand, the new cafes and restaurants frequent in films of Mani Ratnam and Gautham Vasudev Menon. GVM focuses mostly on south Chennai, he likes the beach and the areas around, like Tiruvanmiyur. While making Loners (a short in Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadhaa (2022)), I wanted to shoot in a house that GVM hasn't shot before," Halitha laughs.
The Marina Beach, electric trains and Napier Bridge are famous spots in Mani Ratnam films. When we discuss love in the north, south and other areas of Chennai, his film Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004) which portrays love from all these areas becomes important. If Siddharth and Trisha roaming the beaches and partying represents the south part of Chennai, the romance between the married couple, played by Madhavan and Meera Jasmine, belongs to the other part of the city. The politics of Chennai are also very much a part of the film, where Suriya, a student at Madras University, leads student politics and enters TN general elections.
“Inga Oru Chennai ilaye, pala Chennaigal iruku (There are many Chennais here),” Akshay says. Rightly so, Ram's Taramani portrays love in the suburbs of Chennai. It begins with a top shot of a vast land, covered with rivers and lush green farms. This looks nothing like the Chennai we are accustomed to seeing in films. And director Ram, who makes his presence felt with constant voiceovers in the film, is quick to notice our confusion. He reaffirms that this is Chennai. So, is it North Chennai or South Chennai? Neither, Ram tells us. It is an area beyond Taramani. With lonely apartments that are sky high, and empty lands surrounding the building, it paints a different city in which an Anglo-Indian falls in love with a young man with a complicated past. The difference in their lifestyle is constantly portrayed, which often leads to misunderstandings and fights between the couple.
Likewise, the line “Enga area ulla varaadha” (It is our area, don’t come inside) is very famous in Tamil pop culture. Repeated in multiple films like Chennai 600028 (2007) and Madras (2014), the term is used to describe different boundaries drawn within Chennai. But the film that kickstarted this, Pudhupettai (2006), clearly distinguishes the areas of Chennai using this term. In the song ‘Enga Yeriya,’ Na Muthukumar writes
Viyasarpadi enga area..
Anna nagar…kk nagar…tnagar..
Boat club unga area..”
The lines point out the different areas in Chennai. While the first four belong to the north, the last four are popular streets in the south.
"When most people speak in a different accent, they are termed as 'porikki' but it is just how they speak. Similarly, several films just showed crime and theft in north Chennai. But few films like Pa Ranjith's Madras depicted a different perspective and narrated a beautiful love story in that setting," says Akshay. Though both Karthi and Catherine Tressa work in corporate, their love story blooms in the old lanes of their colony. Their meeting area is the place they come to pump water every morning. Their friends scribbling their names on walls and teasing each other is the spark that brings them together. Football is an important part of Karthi’s life in Madras. Similarly, carrom games are crucial for Dhanush in Vada Chennai (2018). When Padma falls in love with Anbu in Vada Chennai, she tells her father he is a carrom board champion. They do not go to theatres to hang out, instead, they sneakily romance in a neighbour's house where all kids and youngsters gather to watch television.
The Chennai in Mani Ratnam’s Alai Paayuthey (2000), one that made us fall in love with electric trains, is as rooted as the city in Pa Ranjith’s Madras. Karthik asking out Revathi for a cup of coffee in Mouna Ragam (1986) is as Chennai as Tanya Hope accepting to go out with Arun Vijay in Thadam only after he asks, "Tea adikalaam ah?"
The Conflicts of Chennai: Caste, Class and Culture
Modern Love Chennai, which deftly captured some of the most unexplored and overlooked details of Chennai, mostly fails to point out the integral caste and class differences in the bustling metropolitan city, and how even modern love stories are affected by it.
The only exception in the anthology is Krishnakumar Ramakumar's Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji. Mallika (Ritu Varma) and Anbu (Akilan), who work in an IT company in Chennai, fall in love and express that they want to get married, while on an office outing in Pondicherry. But Anbu says there is one thing he wants to ask before they take this relationship any further, one thing that can make or break their relationship. He asks her, "Neenga enna aalu? (What is your caste?)" That one dialogue underlines the newer generation's priorities in their modern romance.
“As area changes, there will be class differences,” points out Balaji. Take Dhanush's Thiruchitrambalam (2022), for instance. The difference between the lifestyles of Dhanush and Rashi Khanna is repeatedly emphasised right from the first time he sees her. When they meet in a cafe, he tells her, “My world is different from yours.” While he spends time with her in cafes, he enjoys eating ice cream and dancing on the road with Nithya Menen. “Many factors — the government, religion, caste, class, societal practices, and much other thought process Chennai ah romba pirichiruku (has separated Chennai into different parts),” Akshay says.
In Rathna Kumar’s Meyaadha Maan (2017), casteist thoughts are subtly played. When Vaibhav, who lives in Royapuram, goes to Priya Bhavani Shankar’s (who belongs to the upper caste) house, her mother doesn’t like the way he drinks water. The first thing they discuss is how clean and neat her house is. Her father invites him to a family function to show him his place.
Balaji says, “In Imaigal, Ashok Selvan and TJ Bhanu study in a government college. Their house is a lower middle-class house, it is called as ondu kuduthanum, where there will be three or four portions in one building. They don’t meet at a coffee day, they meet at the beach. They travel in metro and they finish a degree to work in different jobs. These are the thoughts I kept in mind while writing the story. This setting gives clarity as to how you should structure your characters. It also drags the viewers into the characters’ world.”
Chronicling Chennai’s Changing Landscape
Films like Madarasapattinam (2010) show the Chennai of yesteryears when it was actually called Madarasa Pattinam, before it became Madras and then Chennai. The Cooum River, in all its beauty, is the highlight of this film. The visual of them going on a boat ride in the river, in ‘Vaama Durai Amma’ song could be the best ode to the Madras we see in history.
While Taramani shows newly blossomed suburbs, the Mayajaal mall and the snow world scenes in many earlier films bring back nostalgia too. Unaku 20 Enaku 18 (2003) will forever remind us of the dating scenario that existed in the early 2000s. From the craze for cricket and football, music concerts, and the different boys and girls colleges to the train restaurant, Chennai is there everywhere in this film. But what sums up the entire city is the song ‘Sandhipoma’, as the duo sing their wish to meet each other and start dating.
“Andha marina beach; Siru padagadiyil
Oru nizhalaagi Naam vasipomaa
Coffee day pogalaam, Snow bowling aadalaam
Phone sandai podalaam, Billiyardsil seralaam”
In Engeyum Epodhum (2011), we get to see what falling in love in Chennai feels like for an outsider. When Jai, from Trichy, falls in love with Anjali, he finds everything new. Ananya’s first trip to Chennai doesn’t just introduce Sharwanand into her life, but she is also taken aback from the vast cultural differences. If Engeyum Epodhum offers an outsider’s perspective — of people from other places of Tamil Nadu — about Chennai, Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Hridayam (2022), a Malayalam film, romanticises Chennai in every way possible. Like Pranav Mohanlal’s senior tells him (the boys and girls are mostly made to sit separately and not meet each other in many colleges, but that’s not something we are talking about) — “When you board the train back home from Chennai, you will feel like someone is tugging at your heartstrings.” That’s Chennai, for you!