Think of some random but successful Tamil movies in recent times. You better list out films like Kadhal, Subramaniapuram, Paruthiveeran, Sanda Kozhi, Thimuru, as they form the basis for my theory, which is these movies had one thing in common. We aren’t talking about the non-Tamil speaking heroine (if this is the criterion then all Tamil movies will fit the bill). We are talking about Madurai, the quintessential backdrop to these movies. The situation in Kollywood has come to a level wherein even if you are making a movie about aliens in outer space, there has to be at least a dream sequence set in the rustic and rural swamps of Madurai and its surroundings, which is essentially dust and dreariness that stretch interminably till the distant horizon.
But if you are wondering why Madurai, and not, say, Mannargudi, well here it goes: Even if the movie were to be shot on a shoe-string budget at the AVM, it is easy to capture Madurai, which is by showing a towering temple gopuram in the backdrop. It is Meenakshi Ammman temple, you fool.
The inviolable rules of filmmaking are: If it is Paris, the Eiffel tower must be visible even if you are hiding in a toilet set in a bunker. If he is a urban, rich businessman, he has to say that he has a board meeting to attend or must be seen talking to a serious-looking guy in formals, who needless to say, cannot be anyone else other than the auditor, apparently carrying files relating to the estates and companies.
And so if it is Madurai, the temple tower will stand as the super structure behind even a humble thatched roofed hutment. If this can be managed then the film is deemed to have a rural realism that no sincere writing can manage to conjure up. Mannargudi, by contrast, cannot be recreated on AVM third floor.
And then there is the thing about life. Madurai people are even more easy to capture on screen.
In the case of men folk, they are the ones who move around in veshtis or lungis hitched high up around the waist or even above as if it were just a belt or cummerbund, thereby giving a full view of the undies that is usually striped-shorts which end somewhere around the ankles. In general, the men are shown to carry the aruval as an intrinsic accessory to their daily lives just as a city-bred executive moves around with a Cross pen and a Blackberry. The men here are accepted as full-hearted and upfront even when they are butchering people in random profusion.
The women are loud-mouthed vixen who wear their saris in a manner that is basically a variation of pillow cover that comes handy with a tail. The Madurai woman will painstakingly pine for the hero, whose redeeming quality in general is his brilliant ability to use cuss words even if he were dandling a new-born baby in his arms.
Talking of language, it may seem tricky as Madurai slang is thought to be unique and flavoursome. But it can be realistically captured by the smart expedience of letting the character speak with the Meenakshi Amman temple shown in the background. This establishes, with an irrefutable logic, that as the scene happens in Madurai, the lingo cannot be anything else. If the character is shown to be talking inside a cotton mill, then you can deduce the language to be Coimbatore slang.
Another important aspect to Madurai is that you can go back and forth in time. Suppose a filmmaker wants to set his story in Madurai of the 70s or the 60s, all he has to do is to dress the hero and heroine in clothes that even clowns won’t touch these days, and remove the details of today from the scene (that is not show the calendar and the ubiquitous cars and bikes). Voila, you have Madurai of the 60s in pristine detail (now you know why Subramaniapuram was set in the Madurai of the 80s). Actually, a filmmaker can even make bold to set the movie in Madurai of 2050, provided he can fore-think up the attires and accessories. He needn’t worry about Madurai much, at least at the sociological level that our movies operate, and the temple tower would still suffice.
As a person who hails from Madurai and as someone who has spent a better part of his life there, I am increasingly asked what it is like in reality. Well, it is an unpretentious town that boasts of a few lakhs of unpretentious men and women and a totem temple tower that could be seen from anywhere. Madurai may be situated at a convenient 500kms away from Chennai — an easy overnight journey in train. In reality, except one train, all the trains from here reach Madurai at an unearthly hour, which is acceptable only if the avowed idea is to help the auto-drivers there to charge double fare. Air travel to Madurai is worse. The aerodrome there is located so far away from the main town that you will experience jet lag and different time zone difference merely shuttling between.
Perhaps it is these travel worries that compel our filmmakers to get up Madurai on the AVM floors. I don’t blame them, actually. For Madurai is less a place, more a state of mind, which is a combination of contradictions —- tall, hard, dark, colourful, enigmatic, expressive, kind, threatening, religious, spooky. In other words, a temple tower.
(An old column written for my publication)