I am driving down Anna Salai Road in Chennai and I know that although this name “Anna” reminds me of my female cousin by the same name, this Anna was a man. This is just one of the cultural problems I have been trying to overcome. I can never exactly remember what this Anna did, although it must have been of some relevance since his name is written across my smartphone’s screen when I glance down at the GPS map to see if the blue dot (me) is nearing that red balloon (the cinema).

And this is another disorientating fact I have to deal with: I have still not learned my way around Chennai, although I have lived here long enough to know the difference between TTK and KK Nagar.

Today, my wife and I are going to the huge Phoenix Mall in Chennai’s Velachery neighbourhood to watch the film Madras with her cousin Apeksha and her cousin’s husband Kunal, who has kindly offered to help with the translation. My Tamil language skills are limited to “seri”, “rombo jaasti” and “thanni ille”, still I insist on watching Tamil movies to absorb what people care about, what is important to them, and what the social dynamics are. I love the sound of the language, though I do not understand it.

I write Chennai here, but in the privacy of my compromising mind I call it “Chendras”. I made that up: Chennai + Madras (beats “Madnai”, Madras + Chennai). I have realised that when I say “Madras” some people look at me as a reactionary colonialist. But Chennai just does not have that ring to it, at the risk of annoying those who got rid of what they considered a legacy of the East India Company. If I could say “please, forgive me” in Tamil, I would.

Liberation from samsara

A few kilometres before our destination, as I turn at a signal, I suddenly have to step on the brakes because there is a little crowd following a flower-draped chariot. In the funeral procession are men performing customary dances to the sounds of the familiarly jolly drums. The firecrackers, the songs, the chants and screams among the laughter remind me of a similar procession I had witnessed as a teenager in New Orleans, soundtracked to “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” on trumpets.

How appropriate, I think, to grab the emotions flowing from the loss of a beloved and turn them into a praying euphoria, with the hope of sending the soul to a happy reincarnation, if not to its liberation from samsara. Little do I know how unlikely it would be for this soul to reach a happy transmigration.

The cinema – on the top floor of a multi-level mall that seems teleported from Los Angeles – turns out to be incredibly glitzy, with black marble everywhere, shiny chandeliers, giant screens giving reminders of upcoming features, and columns 10 metres high. There is glitter everywhere, seemingly even in the masala we pour into our popcorn boxes before settling into our armchairs.

Puzzling political relationship

The movie is about a love story in the midst of a gang war in a north Chennai middle-class neighbourhood. There is the Romeo and Juliet tale of the girl who belongs to a different gang’s territory and there is the bromance between the protagonist (played by Karthi) and his expendable friend. The friend gets hacked with sickles and axes at the entrance of a court, where he went to get arraigned on the charge of a murder he had not committed (but the protagonist had). It later turns out that the murdered young man was actually a victim of politics cloaked in revenge.

After the murder, there is an important dancing funeral, a lot of fighting, switching of sides and betrayal – before the movie ends on a sour note and with a lesson (literally, written on a blackboard) on the need to question authority. I find this to be a preachy, albeit courageous, ending, considering that at half time we were entertained by an advertisement deserving high honour for its conceptual implication.

The advertisement shows a girl drawing a nest full of little birds being fed a worm by their large mother. The girl is interrupted by her own mother who takes morsels of rice from a bowl and mouth-feeds her daughter. Cut to a news reel, the advert show the state’s leader recently released from jail, J Jayalalithaa, distributing free bags of rice to her followers.

I do not need to understand Tamil to absorb the symbolism. And neither do you, I presume. The naiveté of such a political relationship leaves me puzzled. And it is not because of my shortcomings in Tamil.

Murder at dawn

What gives me the final jolt in this walk meandering between reality and fiction is an article I find in The Hindu the following day, explaining most likely whose funeral we ran into on our way to the cinema.

The article’s headline says “AIADMK functionary murdered”, and the copy reads, “In public view on Tuesday morning, an armed gang hacked a 43-year-old AIADMK functionary to death.” The murder happened in Velachery, the neighbourhood of Phoenix Mall.

The Velachery police declared that the murder took place at around 6.45 am, when the victim was returning home from his morning walk. “He was just a few streets away from his home when a four-member gang that was waiting for him ran in and attacked him brutally with knives and sickles in front of passers-by who immediately fled in fear.” The man collapsed on the road, while “…assailants fled the scene on foot,’ said an investigating officer.”

Apparently the motivation was money. His wife, says the article in The Hindu, “is a money-lender in the area and [her husband] often made the daily money collections on her behalf.”

The police told the newspaper that “the couple’s money-lending activity could have gained them a few rivals in the form of ex-clients who allegedly lost huge amounts of money and even their homes due to exorbitant interest rates. The case is being investigated to determine if the murder was orchestrated by one of the clients or if it was politically motivated, the police said.”

Discoverer of reality

The murder happened at dawn on a day we went to the movies to watch a feature about a young political functionary being hacked to death in plain daylight by a gang of killers armed with knives and sickles.

As I fold the newspaper, with a slight shudder, I realise that I may not necessarily need to improve my Tamil skills greatly to understand some things about the local reality.

If movies like these continue to have the freedom to be made (with all the limitations of their slapstick humour and TV-style acting that even a “velle” like me can detect despite the language barrier), it might help bring to life in near documentary fashion things that happen at dawn, after a morning walk, in the context that surrounds us.

Was I better off not knowing about this facet of Tamil reality? Are we better off looking the other way – not asking, not realising? Lost in my hazy ideal of this corner of south India, its enchanted temples, its incense and flowery fragrances, overflowing monsoon sewers, beautiful saris and golden-rimmed veshtis, I wonder if it is not preferable to imagine and dream, instead of discovering. My answer is: no.