It was just another day in Chennai and business as usual at Binny Mills in Perambur in the north of the city.

“We’re building a hill here with holes big enough to hold cars in them,” said a film production assistant holding up a set design blueprint and a few photographs. “It is for a song shoot for Kalyaan S’s Gulebagavali. We’re actually going to insert cars into the hill.”

Two men were banging nails into a wooden plank. One of the reference photographs was a Mediterranean grotto roomy enough for a car to breeze in and out of its cave-sized cavities.

“You should come on the day of shooting,” said a security guard who did not wish to be identified. “We’ve seen all sorts of things being built here – from five star hotels to prisons. You will not be able to recognise this place at all. The mill buildings do not even appear as they are when they are done building their sets.”

Clearly, anything is possible at the defunct Buckingham and Carnatic mills in the Tamil Nadu capital. Two of the former mill’s sites are used extensively for film shoots. Apart from Perambur, the other Binny Mills site is near the airport at Meenambakam in the other end of the city. On any given day, both locations are teeming with filmmakers, production designers and technicians who transform the barren, rust-laden interiors according to the demands of the script.

Vedhalam (2015).

The mills were functioning up until 1996, when they were shut down after labour unrest and financial losses. Their demise created an unlikely tenant: the Tamil film industry. Even moviegoers who have never been to Chennai have walked through the expanse of the mills in one way or another. The list of films shot at both locations is extensive – Hey Ram, Guru, the Telugu film Pokiri and its Tamil and Hindi remakes, Ayan, Billa, Kanthaswamy, Saroja and Tamil Padam. The lane-sized corridors can accommodate all kinds of production design fantasies – the Kolkata chawl in the song Veera Vinayaka from the Ajith-starrer Vedhalam was shot here, for instance.

In the absence of Hollywood studio-style backlots, Binny Mills stands in for whatever filmmakers and production designers want it to be, observed cinematographer and filmmaker Rajiv Menon, who shot Mani Ratnam’s Guru in in Perambur. “Most studios in the world have backlots which make period films, in particular, easier to shoot,” Menon pointed out. “So, by default backlots in India have become abandoned mills. It started in Bombay with Mukesh Mills. Similarly, these abandoned mills also became shooting locations and also became a source of revenue for the owners.”

There are very few locations in Chennai that can work as backlots. “Unfortunately, studios like AVM, which had a sizeable piece of land and roads within its campus, got divided,” Menon said. “In Chennai, shooting on the road is next to impossible.”

Most studios devote their floor space to television serials, added renowned production designer Thota Tharani. “Before Binny Mills, the other outdoor option was the Campa Cola campus in Guindy, which has now become a hotel,” he said. The Campa Cola factory was bought over by the ITC group and converted into the luxury hotel ITC Grand Chola.

Tharani created many of the sets of Shankar’s Sivaji at Binny Mills, and he also remembers recreating Calcutta interiors for a film whose title he cannot remember. “There is a bridge right at the end of lane between two buildings which is iconic and has appeared in film after film,” he said.

The song Athradi from Sivaji (2007).

The legacy of the Buckingham and Carnatic mills is thickly woven into the history of Chennai itself. It all began with the arrival of British businessman John Binny to Madras in 1797. “Binny founded Binny and Dennison’s in 1799, a firm which moved to its present Armenian Street address in 1812 and became Binny and Co in 1814,” writes S Muthiah in his book Madras Rediscovered. “John Binny acquired in 1799 the site where Binny’s offices are in Armenian Street and began developing from 1805. Land was added to it till the 1840s. The Art Deco look to the original building was added in the 1930s… Binny’s traders, bankers, managing agents and agents of the British India Steam Navigation Co from its first days, became a leading industrial organisation when it took over some of the country’s first textile mills.”

The Buckingham Mills was founded in 1877, while the Carnatic Mills set up shop in 1882, Muthiah writes. “Both mills, neighbours, were amalgamated in 1920, with Binny’s managing the group, 14000 workers strong,” he writes. “Binny’s, in the years since made Buckingham and Carnatic khaki and drill household names in many parts of the world...”

Like several mills across India, the B&C mills faced losses in the mid-1970s, for reasons ranging from lack of modernisation to damage caused by flooding. “Only governmental pressure kept the mills struggling on in a part of Madras whose entire development and economy have been due to them,” Muthiah writes. “Some of the senior executives’ houses here were a conservationist’s delight – but both the mill area and the houses began to be seen more in terms of their real estate than as production centres.”

KR Krishnan, a former senior assistant engineer at Binny Mills, joined the company in 1952. “Until the 1960s, the Britishers were there,” he said. “Then, it was completely an Indian contingent managing it.”

The labour dispute that was one of the reasons for the closure of the mills has not yet been sorted out, Krishnan added. “The mills are still working out some shareholder disputes and workers settlements. While that is going on, they are giving it out for shooting. It is such a large space well within the city and hence convenient for all.”

The Perambur site owned by V R Venkatachalam also functions as a container depot and a parking lot for private bus operators. The Meenambakkam site is dedicated to film shooting. There have been reports over the years of a housing project coming up on another Binny Mills lot in Perambur owned by a different shareholder. This too used to be given out for shooting until a few years ago. The owners of the different sites were unavailable for comment.

Hey Ram (2000).

One of the first films to recognise the potential of the locations was Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000). “We were the first ones to start shooting in Binny Mills in Perambur, until then, it was not being used,” said production designer Sabu Cyril. “Someone told us that there is a mill which has closed down and there are also employee quarters in the area. It was Kamal Haasan’s team that first went and took pictures of the area. For Rani Mukherji’s house for instance, we used one of the houses there. We created Calcutta in Binny Mills. We even created a level crossing in Maharashtra there. The possibilities were tremendous.”

Hey Ram (2000).

Cyril recalls working in the area for over a year recreating the interiors of Kolkata houses and even constructing an airport with a tobacco shop on the side. The colonial architecture of the mill buildings worked best for the time period in which the film was set, he said. “The buildings had mosaic floors wooden railings and balconies. They were exactly what we were looking for. We only had to use computer graphics to show Calcutta in the background.”

At Meenambakkam, Cyril recently put up a train set for a Priyadarshan film. “After Hey Ram, I think the Perambur site was not being given out for film shootings that often,” said Cyril. “There was an ongoing mill workers dispute about settlement. The Meenambakkam site was given out more readily.”

Guru (2007).

Parts of Mumbai in Guru were actually shot at Binny Mills. “We are masters of recreating Bombay in Chennai,” Rajiv Menon said. “During Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, we created the city in the Campa Cola campus. So we were equipped with the necessary skills by the time we began shooting for Guru. What was interesting about Binny Mills was that it has cobblestone pathways. I had also read that Bombay during the time in which the narrative of Guru is set had gas lighting everywhere. So, I thought we could use yellow lights and together with the cobblestone pathways and the trams, it may look interesting.”

Guru (2007).

The simple reason for Binny Mills’ allure is its versatility and immense possibilities. “It has an industrial feel to it,” Menon said. “We’ve created a fancy home for an advertisement of a residential home featuring Suriya in it. We’ve created a mental hospital. We’ve created the prison during Kadal.”

A fictional village or a city in a film can never be in one place in any case. “In Bombay, for instance, Manisha Koirala is staying in a house which has the mountains in the backdrop – that is in Pollachi. She meets Aravind Swamy during a Muslim wedding which is happening in the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal where Muslim women are dancing. Now this does not happen in Tamil Nadu. They meet each other when their boats cross, but there are no boat crossings in Tamil Nadu. This scene is supposed to be happening somewhere in Kanyakumari but it is actually happening in Kasargod in Kerala. And then, they meet and proclaim their love in the coast in Bekal Fort in Kerala.”

Cinema, after all, is the art of making anything possible anywhere.

“Shankar’s I was also shot here,” said the security guard. “There was the prison sequence in Porambokke. We also saw the shooting of Pokkiri and Bairavaa. An entire luxury hotel was created here during Singham. Rajini sir came here once, for a song’s shooting for Sivaji.”

The guard doesn’t bother to watch the films after they have been completed. He doesn’t need to. “What’s the point? We’ve seen how they create all of it right here.”

Binny Mills in Meenambakkam. Photo by Archana Nathan.