Burma is now Myanmar, Rangoon is Yangon, and Madras is Chennai. But Tamil filmmakers continue to turn to Rangoon and Burma for cinematic inspiration.

The upcoming Rangoon, produced by AR Murugadoss and directed by Rajkumar Periasamy, depicts the journey undertaken by Venkat, a small-time businessman, from Madras (not Chennai) to Rangoon (not Yangon). Venkat has already established a connection with his future destination. He works at Rangoon Jewellers in Sowcarpet. When asked if it is safe to go to Rangoon all by himself, Venkat says, “Ingendu Rangoon pogardellam oru matteraa? Namma ooru” (It’s not a big deal to go to Rangoon from Madras. It’s our city.)

Venkat isn’t exaggerating, but simply evoking a long-standing link between Tamil Nadu and Myanmar that Tamil cinema has consistently explored since the 1940s.

Rangoon (2017).

In 1945, when the British government brought in a rule that one out of every three studio films should mark the war effort, production companies in Chennai came up with such titles as Burma Rani (1945) and Manasamrakshanam (1945). Prints of Manasamrakshanam have not survived, and all we know is that it is a British spy war film in Tamil set in Rangoon.

Burma Rani, directed by TR Sundaram and produced by Modern Theatres, is about three Indian pilots who stray into Rangoon, which is under the rule of the Japanese (spelt as Jappanese in the film). The pilots help liberate Rangoon and are assisted by Rani (TA Mathuram), an Indian woman in Burma. Rani’s heart is in Tamilagam (the Tamil state). It isn’t a conflict at all for her when it comes to saving the lives of the Tamil airmen. Burma Rani also features a British spy ring headed by Mangalam (KLV Vasantha).

Burma Rani (1945).

One of the most popular examples of the Burma connection is the Sivaji Ganesan blockbuster Parasakthi (1952). Chandrashekaran and his brothers are lawyers in Rangoon. Their sister Kalyani is about to be married, and the brothers decide to leave for Madras. World War II is raging, and travel conditions are getting arduous. The youngest brother Gunasekharan (Ganesan) manages to get a spot on one of the crowded ships ferrying Tamilians to Madras. As the war intensifies, the other two brothers begin to walk to Madras all the way from Rangoon. Gunasekharan later ends up in court to defend his sister’s honour, yielding one of the most well-known sequences in Tamil cinema.

Parasakthi (1952).

The films were made against the backdrop of historic trade routes between the Tamil-speaking regions and Burma. For centuries, merchants, traders and labourers have travelled to the port cities of Rangoon, Ceylon and Penang, and scores of them settled there. “Beginning in the 1880s, Burma was the third great destination for Indian labour, and it would attract the most migrants of all,” writes Sunil S Amrith in his book Crossing the Bay of Bengal. “By 1911, more than 100,000 people each year arrived from India in each of these three destinations across the Bay of Bengal. The statistics are notoriously imprecise but in the century between 1840 and 1940 somewhere around 8 million people travelled from India to Ceylon....between 12 million and 15 million to Burma.”

The port cities hardly felt alien to the migrants, and were seen as an “extension of India”, Amrith adds. “Burma was ruled as a province of British India, and so Indians who moved to Burma were “domestic” migrants, despite having crossed the Bay,” he writes. Rangoon was described as an “Indian city”.

This sentiment is echoed in Parasakthi. In the prologue, directors Krishnan and Panju specify that this is a film about the plight of Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Burma during World War II. The film opens with a song that extols the virtues of Dravida Nadu. At the end of the song, a man walks up to the stage and talks about the cheerless situation that many families are in because they are separated from their loved ones working in Rangoon. There is a reason sea water is salty, he adds. It’s made up of the tears of Tamilians forced to leave their homeland and work in Rangoon.

Four years after Parasakthi, Sivaji Ganesan starred in Rangoon Radha (1956). Rangam (Bhanumathi), after being shunned by her husband in Kottaiyur, walks to Rangoon and seeks refuge there. Rangam brings up an orphan whom she names Rangoon Radha (Rajasulochana), who, after she grows up, takes Rangam home to Tamil Nadu and eventually weds Rangam’s son – a literal marriage of Madras and Rangoon.

Rangoon Radha (1956).

Indians in Burma were as likely to work as farmers as in small-scale industries. The Chettiar community, in particular, played a key role in developing the credit economy. “Before the 1970s, Burmese pioneers expanded into the Irrawady delta and increased rice cultivation slowly but steadily,” writes Amrith. “They relied on relatives and shopkeepers for credit to tide them over until the harvest or to finance occasional cash purchases. As new lands were colonised in a headlong rush after the opening of the Suez Canal, the need for credit became acute. The Chettiars were the only group that could supply it.” This could explain the affluence of Mangalam, Burma Rani and Gunasekharan.

As the far-reaching effects of the Great Depression reached Rangoon’s shores in the ’30s, Indians paid the price. A strong national movement emerged in Burma, provoking anti-colonial and anti-immigrant sentiments. The tensions culminated in the Japanese occupation of South-East Asia in the ’40s, and World War II further forced many migrants back to Tamil Nadu.

The movies reflected the severance of the link. In Mallika (1957), a Tamil businessman returns from Burma after profits dry up. He dies along with his wife in a plane crash on the way home, while his daughters survive. The accident is a symbol of the brutal end of a mutually enriching relationship.

Burma Bazaar.

Many of the Burmese Tamils who returned to Madras were rehabilitated on a piece of land that is now known as Burma Bazaar. It is run by the Burma Tamilar Marumalarchi Sangam, and sells mainly electronics, textiles and food items. It is also a market for pirated films. Saran’s Vattaram (2006), a gangster film, and KV Anand’s Ayan (2009), an action film feature the market, especially the pirated CD shops.

Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam (2011) is dedicated to various writers and filmmakers and Burma Bazaar for opening a window on to world cinema.

The crime thriller Burma (2015), directed by Dharani Dharan, makes a sly reference to the off-the-books nature of Burma Bazaar’s economy. Parmanandham (Michael Thangadurai) is an expert car thief. His name is contracted to Parma, which in turn becomes Burma.

In the same year that Burma was released came KV Anand’s Anegan. One portion plays out in the ’60s in Burma, and is about a Tamil migrant who falls in love with the daughter of a Burmese military general. He is forced to flee when the love story is discovered.

Periasamy’s Rangoon seems to follow in Anegan’s footsteps by evoking the older connection of trade and labour between the two regions. As Venkat says, it is indeed never a big deal to go to Rangoon as far as Tamil cinema is concerned.