Farewell to Madras

When I left India, I stuffed as much of “home” as is humanly possible into two large suitcases. I consoled myself with the fact that life in my adopted country comes equipped with broadband, Google Talk, cheap calling cards and numerous other devices, each a symbol of reassurance that I’ll always stay in touch with home.

What I didn’t realize then, is that the instant I stepped on the plane I also stepped into a parallel universe, equipped only with my two suitcases which function as time capsules filled with memories of that other world I used to inhabit. The instant the plane lifted off Indian soil, I lost all touch with home. This week end, I decided that I shall no longer insist on calling Madras “home”. No more clinging on to this imaginary ideal.

What brought on this maudlin state? Hard to point a finger at one specific cause – it’s been building up for sometime now. ‘Ghajini’ was the final straw.

As I watched Surya prance about in hot pink cargos, I realized that I’ve become a complete stranger to the way of the Tamils. If one considers popular entertainment as a barometer of prevailing tastes, I can no longer call myself a Tamilian. I’d looked forward to Ghajini, despite knowing that it is an attempt at the desification of Memento. In fact, I was impressed that a Tamil movie was ‘inspired’ by such challenging original material as Memento. I knew it would be asking for the moon to expect them to tell the tale backwards (remember this is the audience that found Michael Madana Kamaraj too hard to follow). I was prepared for a chronologically simpler retelling. I was even prepared for a second heroine, and a second chance at romance & a happy ending.

What I was not prepared for was a sorry Bollywood-import for a villain, who’s been imported twice over, possibly due to a mix-up involving two copies of bills of lading (don’t ask why I say these things – effects of a summer internship at P&O NedLloyd apparently still linger on.) And while this is mere wishful thinking, I do keep hoping that Tamil cinema would rid itself of actresses who represent inspired casting decisions for the ‘before’ segments of weight reduction ads. Or if you must have “healthy” looking females, would someone please clothe them! Or does that defeat the whole purpose? I find it painful and embarrassing to defend Tamil cinema to non-Tamil friends when our “item girls” look they way they do. Every time I bring up, say, Govinda, they come right back at me with Mumtaz & the like. Nayantara appears to be the latest addition to our line of “svelte” beauties.

As I’d mentioned, Ghajini was merely the last straw. I also found Anniyan disappointing & Chandramukhi painful. Movie wise, it has been a painful year. I’ve survived gems such as 7G Rainbow Colony, Mumbai Express, Devathayai Kanden, Krishna Thulasi, Chellamay and others my traumatized mind has succeeded in suppressing the memories of. My experience with Bollywood has been no better. I watched 71/2 Phere. And if that weren’t enough, I also watched Ek Alag Mausam. I shall never let myself be seduced by the presence of Irfan or Nandita Das. Particularly Ms. Das – the lady has disappointed me across languages.

It’s one thing to get suckered into watching duds (you watch more of them when you’re outside India, out of a misplaced and questionable sense of Tamizh Pattru). But another thing entirely to scoff at the year’s best movies. For starters, the latter makes for some uncomfortable silences during calls home. One cousin has watched Anniyan thrice. How do I continue the conversation after hearing that piece of information?

I worry about my Tamil-ness when I find myself unable to sit through these masterpieces even once. If you dislike Tamil movies when you are in India, you might be considered merely ignorant. Having spent 6 years in Delhi, I am considered something of a non-Tamilian by the Madrasis, and non-Tamilians who watch Tamil movies are treated with a fond indulgence – as you would foreigners attempting to speak your language. But if you dislike Tamil movies and you happen to live in the US, you’re a snob. If you’ve ever made the mistake of mentioning a foreign language movie or two (even if you personally watch them more for Ziyi Zhang or Gael Garcia Bernal than for their subtle story-telling), you are a pseudo.

When I read Naipaul or Lahiri, it’s always been with a sense of curiosity. Till date, I’ve not felt any sort of kinship with those misplaced souls. I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. This week end, I realized that that is what I am. I suppose it had to happen sometime – when you stop saying dah-nce and learn to say day-nce, you catch yourself asking friends to order a movie on NetFlix, when you celebrate Diwali on a convenient weekend, instead of on Diwali day.

All of these little changes have been accumulating over the last year. When I watched Surya in a Mustard T-shirt (tight, with no sleeves, please – we want to show the world that we spend at least 10 hours a day at the gym), and Mustard pants, I realized that Madras may no longer be “home”.

I love the movies. And an important reason I watch them is to get material for day dreaming. Hollywood movies are great. As are Chinese movies, Spanish movies, Polish movies and well, you get the idea. But Tamil movies have always been special. Because, culturally, they capture one’s aspirations bang on. Heroes perform their heroic deeds in familiar settings, making it that much easier to imagine yourself in their shoes. While James Bond kicks ass, being a cryptologist from Madras who cracks codes for the Indian government wasn’t a bad dream either.

A necessary pre-condition to all this day-dreaming is that the characters be desirable. A man who has repeatedly failed his exams, and can’t get a job, until the love of a good woman helps him discover a superior vocational talent (auto-repair, dish-washing – take your pick) is most definitely NOT desirable. Granted, Sanjay Ramaswamy from Ghajini is an HBS alum who owns a large mobile phone service provider. But let’s not forget that he is also the man with the chunky silver bracelets and the hot pink cargos. I’m not planning a visit to Fresh Choice when I day dream – I’ll take X’s money, Y’s charm with the ladies, and keep my own clothes & build the perfect salad, er, hero. No, I want it to be simple – a case of find hero, replace with DoZ.

For a while, I felt perhaps age was the culprit – the other top reason behind why so many things don’t seem to make sense any more. But, naah. My parents loved Chandramukhi. And liked Anniyan. So, I’ve decided it must be the distance. Perhaps the chlorinated water of Madras passes on that je ne sais quoi that tells Tamilians in Tamil Nadu that pretending to be rappers with lots of bling is “the” way to look. Drinking fluorinated water in Texas, I’ve become ‘phoren’.

As I mourn my loss, I take comfort from fellow displaced Tamilians who appear as bewildered by Tamil movies as I am. At least, they appear to be taking it better than I am. For now, home will be virtual, like this, this , and this.

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4 comments so far

  1. The soliloquist on

    Lovely post, enjoyed everyline with a grin…
    Good insights…

  2. DoZ on

    Thank you, Soliloquist 🙂

  3. Karthik on

    So true. I am in Madras right now, and most things that I loved before, I don’t now.

    When I was in college, I used to call Mudhal Mariyadhai a masterpiece. I happened to watch it again a few months ago, and boy, did it suck. Except for the music, the whole movie was boring… (which is another reason I love Illayaraja, I can enjoy him without lowering my taste). Not that I had become a snob, it is just that I have better comparisons now…

  4. DoZ on

    “When I was in college, I used to call Mudhal Mariyadhai a masterpiece. I happened to watch it again a few months ago, and boy, did it suck.”

    Ah, the movies I couldn’t get enough of when I was younger… Where do I begin? Maine Pyar Kiya & Qyamat Se Qyamat Tak are surely the two am the most ashamed of ever watching, let alone ‘loving’…Tamil? Suffice to say that action scenes used to be my favorite part of any movie…Now, I fast forward through these matrix-like fight sequences that everyone seems to love…


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