At the centre of Vetri Maaran’s Tamil gangster drama Vada Chennai, which follows a bloody power struggle between two gangs, is the area after which the film is named – North Chennai.
The October 17 release, starring Dhanush, Ameer, Samuthirakani and Andrea Jeremiah, traces the lives of the residents of the northern part of Tamil Nadu’s capital, who refuse to leave the area despite its many problems. “This is not my hood, it is my kingdom. I am not going anywhere,” Ameer’s Rajan asserts in the film.
For Vetri Maaran, Vada (North) Chennai is the real hero of the film. “All the other characters complement and support it,” the filmmaker told Scroll.in. “One usually tends to look at people from Vada Chennai as people who just want to fight, do drugs and so on. We have depicted those things too in our film but the film doesn’t stop with just that. We’ve expressed our concerns with a lot of the issues there in our own way.”
Maaran, who had also explored North Chennai in his debut film Polladhavan (2007), is only the latest filmmaker to be fascinated by the neighbourhood.
Since the early 2000s, North Chennai has been a key feature in several films, including Saran’s Gemini (2002), Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai (2006), Pa Ranjith’s Madras (2014), N Kalyanakrishnan’s Bhooloham (2015) and Pushkar-Gayatri’s Vikram Vedha (2017).
The region, lying north of the Coovum river, is the oldest part of Chennai and includes, among others, Georgetown, Vyasarpadi, Tondiarpet, Tiruvottiyur, Perambur and the Royapuram fishing harbour. The peninsula that once comprised “a couple of fishing villages, where lived a few migrant fishing families”, as historian S Muthiah wrote in Tales of Old And New Madras (1989), has boomed into a sprawling metropolis. Today, North Chennai, with a high working-class population, is known for its fishing harbour, colonial structures and matchbox houses as also for its robust labour and Dalit movements and its underworld.
“North Madras was where the city began,” Muthiah explained in an interview with The Hindu. “It’s a whole area worth exploring in the context of our identity as citizens of Madras...North Madras is a vibrant area in terms of politics and culture.”
The region’s old-world charm is the biggest draw for filmmakers, said Gayatri, one half of the director duo that has made Oram Po (2007), Va (2010) and Vikram Vedha. “It is an old town so it has a lot of character,” she said. “It has the sea and harbour along with it. You have these colonial constructions and huge government offices. It feels more Madras than Chennai. The visual elements are definitely appealing. There are natural pockets like the Burma colony, where Burmese food is sold as street food. It is a melting pot of a lot of cultures.”
All of Pushkar-Gayatri’s films have been set in North Chennai. The area plays a key role in Vikram Vedha, a retelling of the Bikram-Betal folk story centred on a police officer (R Madhavan) and a gangster (Vijay Sethupathi). North Chennai is the protective den of Sethupathi’s Vedha and also the reason for his downfall.
The film was mainly shot in Vyasarpadi and Royapuram fishing harbour. “We were looking for graphic patterns and road stretches,” Gayatri said. “We had shortlisted one location. In our technical recce, what was really appealing was that it bore a resemblance to some parts of South America. There were just these hulls of buildings in the background and in the middle was the rubble. That looked fantastic.”
Colour, chaos and character
For Vinoth Rajkumar, the art director of Vikram Vedha, North Chennai’s appeal lies in its ability to evoke certain moods through its colours. The vicinity is cloaked in muted tints of blue, red and maroon, he said.
“North Chennai is completely different from other parts of the city, be it in terms of the people or the the places,” Rajkumar explained. “Even the building structures and the street side stores are filled with life. For example if you enter a fish market, there will be gunny bag roofs, which gives beautiful shadows. If you frame any scene, it will be beautiful.”
The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board tenements, located across Chennai, have also made numerous appearances in films. These haphazard constructions add character, according to Rajkumar. “Be it the buildings or background, there is no order in the locality,” he explained. “Organised structure brings in beauty and indicates a different class of people. In North Chennai, there are shanty houses and housing boards. The location brims with character.”
One of the most extensive portraits of North Chennai is in Pa Ranjith’s Madras. Shot in Vyasarpadi and Perambur, the film follows the power struggle between two gangs vying for the possession of a wall. The film is filled with vignettes of life in North Chennai.
Art director Tha Ramalingam’s formative years in North Chennai helped him capture the essence of the area in his set design. “I am from Tindivanam [a town in Tamil Nadu] but have stayed in North Chennai for over 20 years,” he said. “Since North Chennai is a place I have known and admired...I was able to connect to the locality very easily and could work with the visuals.”
There are three angles from which filmmakers typically look at North Chennai, Ramalingam added: “One is...as a common man from other parts of the city. Another is observing the people in North Chennai after understanding where they come from. And the last one is observing it from a visual point of view in a very City of God-esque format.”
Gangs of Vada Chennai
Ramalingam’s reference to Fernando Meirelles’s Brazilian film City of God (2002) captures another aspect of the average filmmaker’s fascination for North Chennai. The movies set here often centre on street fights, gang wars and violent crimes. North Chennai is to Tamil movies what the favelas of Rio De Janerio are to City of God (2002) and Dharavi is to the Mumbai-set Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
This is because of the region’s high crime rates , which in turn are linked to its economy, Gayatri said. “If there is way more poverty in a place than there should be, there will be an element of crime attached to it, which is purely an economic thing,” she said. “In South Madras, you might probably have more white-collar criminals. Since the gangs here were established a long time back, violence is associated with the [northern] locality. But it is much deeper than that.”
Some North Chennai residents agree with this summation of the region. “Vada Chennai is rowdyism,” Dharmaraj, a resident of Vyasarpadi said. “The depiction is spot on because mamool sandai [forceful collection of money from petty vendors] is very common here. Fights are all about revenge. Anybody who wins the gang war, wins the mamool from all the small stores.”
However, Zubeida, another Vyasarpadi resident, said that it was the films that were fuelling crime in the area. “Films teach people to rob and kill efficiently,” she said. “People learn from cinema. They even teach detailed plans in films. The violence here has been prevalent here since years. One might think that the incidents might come down after the films, but it has only served as a tool to boost their ego.”
However, others feel that the films aren’t cutting deep enough and often ignore the grimmer realities of North Chennai.
A middle-aged resident, who did not wish to be identified, said that the crimes go beyond petty rivalries and street fights. “Right now, young kids get into robbery and drugs to get money,” he said. “It starts from 11-year-old kids. It is tough to even step out past 11 in the night even for men. If you roam the streets with a phone in your hand, it is likely to be snatched by some kid with a knife.”
Morality has been lost to money and drugs, another resident claimed. “At one point in time, rowdies used to use their money to help people,” the local said. “But that does not seem to happen anymore. Nowadays anybody and everybody is a rowdy.”
Rajan, the General Secretary of a Perambur slum tenement, said that films don’t delve into the police-criminal nexus. “The police too is the culprit,” Rajan said. “If we complain to them, they in turn go and inform the rowdies. What is really the use? Films do not show this. It makes it tougher for us to face the perpetrators. Films still show residents fighting for pump-set water. All of that does not happen anymore.”
According to art direct Ramalingam, filmmakers need to stop looking at North Chennai through the prism of violence. “Most filmmakers go to this area for any crime story, like as if crime does not happen anywhere else,” he pointed out. “That treatment is not right. But since cinema is a fashion and is effective, high-risk youngsters from the locality watch films and only get triggered more to act violently.”
Most movies don’t capture the vibrancy of the area, which is home to numerous boxers, footballers, carrom players, jugglers and hip hop enthusiasts, Ramalingam said.
“People here live their lives loudly and with celebration,” he said. “To give you an example, if someone expires in the area, everybody in the neighbourhood will stand by the family by taking leaves in office. You do not see that in different parts of the city, where most people hardly know their neighbours. The slum life is very heartwarming. Even after going up in life, I still prefer to stay in North Chennai. North Chennai in itself is like a painting.”