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North Chennai Often is Falsely Portrayed in Films? Filmmakers wake up!

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Filmmakers have a huge responsibility when portraying a culture/locality. Because unless they have lived there, they could never bring out honest/authentic perspectives. And When these imperfect perspectives began to get a familiar standing, it soon results in stereotypes, which ultimately shapes a false opinion of particular culture/locality.

This point is so valid and looks so important thanks to a Facebook post written by Rajesh Rajamani 

An excerpt is given below:

“A recent article in HT titled ‘Tamil films: How north Chennai marks its presence while Kodambakkam thrives’ has been profusely lauded by many. But somehow, it was a very uncomfortable read for me. I felt that it was incomplete and (sorry to say this but) half baked in various aspects. Let me share a few points here.

The article tries to club together a movie like ‘Irudhi Sutru’ along with ‘Madras’, which I found very problematic. North Chennai’s presence (geographically or through it’s inhabitants) is nothing new to Tamil cinema. What we need to look is how they got represented. Traditionally, North Madras, it’s inhabitants and their culture have been either (a) demonized or (b) caricatured or to some extent, even (c) exoticized. In ‘Walter Vetrivel’, the villain’s name is Kabali and he hails from Kasimedu. This is an example of the most popular way North Madras has been shown in Tamil cinema. As a place which inhabits anti-social elements. Caricaturing North Madras Tamil dialect (Chennai Basha, as some might want to call it) has been the second most popular way. Cho and Kamal Hassan have been stalwarts of this caricaturing business. Selva Raghavan’s ‘Pudhupettai’ is an example of how the place was exoticized in cinema. He attempts to portray North Madras as if it was a location straight out of Fernando Meirelles’s ‘City of God’.

Pa Ranjith is probably the only director who consciously made an effort to step out of the demonizing, caricaturing and exoticizing trends and tried to (d) humanize the location, its people and their culture. On the other hand, a movie like ‘Irudhi Sutru’ by Sudha Kongara is nothing more than a caricature of North Madras through the upper class/caste lens.

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Let me cite an immediate example I could recall. Look at the first two screenshots from the movie ‘Irudhi Sutru’. In depicting a small biriyani stall, the movie tries desperately to point out a spell error in the words ‘Biriyani Ready’. And in the other one, it forcibly puts Dhanush’s movie posters from two different release years (‘Aadukalam’ and ‘3’) on the same wall, as if to suggest that Dhanush is the most liked actor in these areas. And not just this, the movie goes ahead and even mocks the fishing community for their conversion to Christianity. The protagonist’s father is shown as someone who converted to Christianity in exchange of alcohol. This is exactly how caricaturing works. Without understanding a culture or its history, an outsider pushes his/her assumptions in the portrayal as if they were real.

But look at the third screenshot which is from ‘Madras’. While depicting a wall, the frame refers to ‘Thatha Rettamalai Srinivasan’s Educational Centre’. Pa Ranjith didn’t force a silly spell error or some actor’s posters from different release years. But he shows you a detail which is seeped in the culture, politics and history of the place. And that is how you humanize a location.

Also, the article quotes Theodore Baskaran saying “North Chennai is now getting its representation through gaana paatu….” Am not sure what ‘now’ exactly means here. But even before Pa Ranjith appeared in the scene, one important person who has been humanizing the lives of North Madras inhabitants in Tamil cinema through his music is Deva. And he started composing in the year 1989. Since then, he has been recording the lives of North Madras people with dignity when everyone else was just doing the opposite. So I was quite surprised that there was no mention of him in the article”

So What do you learn from this?

As Filmmakers we have a responsibility. Portraying with Half-baked perspectives and understanding of other’s culture is actually worse than not portraying the same.

The question then to us is how can we enhance our perspectives of the culture in question. Probably the best way is to live with them, or atleast spend some time studying about them, understanding them before getting into improper conclusions.

Lesson is clear: We got to Do the Research instead of jumping into theories often inspired from previous films which portrayed the same culture.

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