What better way to mark the founding of the city once known as Madras than by singing songs in its praise?
Whether through lyrics or locations, Tamil film songs have celebrated the wonders of Chennai in numerous ways. In May Madham (1994), a poncho-clad Manorama plays the city’s wackiest tour guide to Vineeth and Sonali Kulkarni in Madrasa Suthi Paaka Poren. Accompanied by lungi-wearing guitarists and Manorama, Sonali Kulkarni’s character sings, “I will build a house on the Marina beach and will stand atop the lighthouse.”
The song’s veneration of Chennai doesn’t end with the lyrics but also seeps into the visuals, providing gorgeous views of Napier bridge, Ripon building, Marina beach and Anna Salai.
A different kind of wonderment is expressed in Madras Nalla Madras from K Balachander’s Anubavi Raja Anubavi (1967). A village simpleton (Nagesh) tries to keep up with the fast-paced city and the speeding traffic. True to Balachander’s style, the song’s lyrics are spiced with satire. The difference between a man and a woman aren’t apparent, Nagesh sings, strolling past the iconic LIC building and the Buhari restaurant.
Chennai’s unique slang is paired with rap music in Pettai Rap from Shankar’s Kadhalan (1994). “Ammapettai Ayyampettai Teynaampettai Thengai Mattai,” Vadivelu sings, covering the important neighbourhoods of Chennai while dancing with the rubber-limbed Prabhudeva.
One of the pettais, Pudhupettai, features in Selvaraghavan’s Enga Area Ulla Varathey from his 2006 film of the same name. Marking the invisible border between North Chennai and other neighbourhoods, the song is replete with Chennai lingo, down to Dhanush’s character name: Kokki Kumar. The song subsequently became the tagline of Venkat Prabhu’s Chennai 600028 (2007).
One of the city’s modern anthems is Enga Ooru Madras from Pa Ranjith’s Madras (2014). From the rickety housing board societies in Vyasarpadi to the graffiti art in George Town, the song captures the essence of the movie’s protagonist, which is the city itself. “Ripon building, High court ellam sengal mannal mattum alla, engaloda rathangalum senthirrukum”: the likes of Ripon building and the High Court were built not just with bricks, but also our blood.
Pandiraj’s Marina (2012) captures life on the city’s most famous beach. Vannakam Chennai from the film features celebrities such as Prakash Raj, Sashi Kumar, Sneha, Vikram and Vimal singing Chennai’s praises.
Words are not the only way to pay tribute to a city. Several film songs capture Chennai’s physical beauty and geographical and cultural diversity through locations and backdrops. CV Sridhar’s Manidhan Enbavan from Sumaithaangi (1962) sees Gemini Ganesan strolls through the stretch of Marina beach, crooning about the wonders of humanity.
Resembling the statue of Thomas Munro on a horse – one of Madras’s most popular governors – in Anna Salai, MG Ramachandran rides a galloping white horse along the streets of the city in Nenjam Undu Nermai Undu from En Annan (1970). The song includes glimpses of Ripon building, the real Thomas Munro statue and, of course, the statue of Ramachandran’s mentor CN Annadurai on Mount Road.
In 1968, one of Chennai’s strikingly tall structures was enshrined on film in CV Rajendran’s romantic drama Galata Kalyanam, starring J Jayalalithaa, Sivaji Ganesan, Nagesh, Cho Ramaswamy and Manorama. The famous MS Viswanathan composition Engal Kalyanam features courtship at Anna Nagar Tower Park – a practice that has been observed in real life too.
Rajinikanth and Radhika cover almost the entire stretch of Mount Road in Ivan Peru Ranga from Ranga (1982). Gliding past the LIC building, Gemini flyover, and Chennai High Court, the chirpy newly-weds croon their love for each other.
The Chennai monsoon acts as a delightful distraction for the rebellious young Divya (Revathi) in Oho Megham Vandhado from Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam (1986). Even as her prospective groom waits for her at her house, Divya and her friends dance on Elliot’s Beach. The beach also makes a fleeting appearance in Konja Naal Poru Thalaiva from Aasai (1995).
Elliot’s Beach, along with the LIC building and Napier bridge, are among Chennai’s most camera-friendly landmarks. In Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram (2008), the song Yethi Yethi provides a well-rounded visual tour. A young Suriya shakes a leg along with his classmates in the song, which provides glimpses of Pilot theatre, Adyar beach and the temples of Mylapore.
M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai (2015) turns the lens away from the picture postcard views and towards its underbelly. The beautifully shot Sel Sel song maps the impoverished world of two brothers from the Saidapet slums, and stops by at the Cooum river and the tracks of Saidapet railway station.
Other songs that duck into more lived-in neighbourhoods include Aval Appadi Onnum Azhagillai from Angadi Theru (2010), which is set on the lucrative Ranganathan Street, and Shankar’s Mersalaayitten from I (2015), which provides a fabulous view of Vannarapettai, or Washermanpet.
Some songs convey the unique flavours of Chennai without resorting to aural or visual gimmicks. Rajinikanth’s Naan Autokaran from Baasha (1995) is an unmatched ode to the hard-working drivers of the city’s ubiquitous three-wheelers.
No matter which exotic international location he might choose to shoot in, director Shankar has a special place in his heart for his city. In Ennaku Oru Girlfriend from Boys (2003), Shankar compresses the elements of 1990s Chennai into the five-minute song: shopping malls, internet surfing, disco hopping and movie theatres. Chikku Bukku Rayile from Shankar’s Gentleman (1993) is an ode to the romance-and-the-railways genre element so dear to filmmakers.
An indelible part of Tamil music is the Gana genre, which has its origins in North Chennai. “Gana is the expression of Chennai people, of those oppressed, discriminated or pushed away to the fringes by the society... It’s about life, struggle, happiness and everything around him,” explained Marana Gana Viji, who sang Danga Maari Oodhari in Anegan (2014), in an interview in Times of India. Dancing at the slums of Fort George against backdrops of Rajinikanth graffiti and railway stations, the song sees Dhanush throw light on the unique relationship between Gana and the city. Even the simplest of daily routines, such as waiting to fill buckets with water and grabbing breakfast, get a lift with Gana.
Manorama’s Vaa Vathiyare from Bommalattam (1968) is among the earliest tunes to co-opt the musical style into popular cinema. Manorama gives Kamal Haasan a run for his money in Annathe Adurar from Aboorva Sagodhargal (1989). “Kuthuna Kuthuvaen Vaettuna Vaettuvaen”: If you punch, I will punch back and if you cut, I will cut, Hassan sings in the middle of Chennai’s streets, where it is all happening.