In the northeastern corner of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, CHENNAI (still commonly referred to by its former British name, Madras) is India’s fourth largest city, with a population nudging seven and a half million. Hot, congested and noisy, it’s the major transportation hub of the south and most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else. The attractions of the city itself are sparse, though it does boast fine specimens of Raj architecture, pilgrimage sites connected with the apostle Doubting Thomas, superb Chola bronzes at its state museum, and plenty of classical music and dance performances.
As capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is, like Mumbai and Kolkata, a comparatively modern creation. It was founded by the British East India Company in 1639, on a 5-km strip of land between the Cooum and Adyar rivers, a few kilometres north of the ancient Tamil port of Mylapore and the Portuguese settlement of San Thomé; a fortified trading post, completed on St George’s Day in 1640, was named Fort St George. Over the course of the next century and a half, as capital of the Madras Presidency which covered most of south India, the city expanded to include many surrounding villages. After losing it to the French in 1746, the British, with Robert Clive (“Clive of India”) at their helm, re-established control three years later and continued to use it as their southern base, although Madras was surpassed in national importance by Calcutta.
The city’s renaissance began after Independence, when it became the centre of the Tamil movie industry, and a hotbed of Dravidian nationalism. Renamed as Chennai in 1997, the metropolis has boomed since the Indian economy opened up to foreign investment in the early 1990s. The flip side of this rapid economic growth is that Chennai’s infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point: poverty, oppressive heat and pollution are more likely to be your lasting impressions than the conspicuous affluence of the city’s modern marble shopping malls.
Chennai divides into three main areas. The northern district, separated from the rest by the River Cooum, is the site of the first British outpost in India, Fort St George, and the commercial centre, George Town, which developed during British occupation. At the southern end of Rajaji Salai is Parry’s Corner, George Town’s principal landmark and a major bus stop – look for the tall grey building labelled Parry’s.
Central Chennai is sandwiched between the Cooum and Adyar rivers, and crossed diagonally by the city’s main thoroughfare, Anna Salai, the modern, commercial heart of the metropolis. To the east, this gives way to the atmospheric old Muslim quarters of Triplicane and a long straight Marina where fishermen mend nets and set small boats out to sea, and hordes of Indian tourists hitch up saris and trousers for a quick paddle. South of here, near the coast, Mylapore, inhabited in the 1500s by the Portuguese, boasts Kapalishvara Temple and San Thomé Cathedral, both tourist attractions and places of pilgrimage.Read More
Of movie stars and ministers
Of movie stars and ministers
One notable difference between the Chennai movie industry and its counterpart in Mumbai is the influence of politics on Tamil films – an overlap that dates from the earliest days of regional cinema, when stories, stock themes and characters were derived from traditional folk ballads about low-caste heroes vanquishing high-caste villains. Already familiar to millions, such Robin Hood–style stereotypes were perfect propaganda vehicles for the nascent Tamil nationalist movement, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK. It is no coincidence that the party’s founding father, C.N. Annadurai, was a top screenplay and script writer. Like prominent Tamil Congress leaders and movie-makers of the 1930s and 1940s, he and his colleagues used the popular film genres of the time to convey their political ideas to the masses. From this politicization of the big screen were born the fan clubs, or rasigar manrams, that played such a key role in mobilizing support for the nationalist parties in elections.
The most influential fan club of all time was the one set up to support the superstar actor Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, known to millions simply as “MGR”. By carefully cultivating a political image to mirror the folk-hero roles he played in films, the maverick matinee idol generated fanatical grass-roots support in the state, especially among women, and rose to become chief minister in 1977. His eleven-year rule is still regarded by liberals as a dark age of chronic corruption, police brutality, political purges and rising organized crime. When he died in 1987, two million people attended his funeral and 31 grief-stricken devotees committed ritual suicide. Even today, MGR’s statue, sporting trademark sunglasses and lamb’s-wool hat, is revered at tens of thousands of wayside shrines across Tamil Nadu.
MGR’s political protégée, and eventual successor, was a teenage screen starlet called Jayalalitha, a convent-educated brahmin’s daughter whom he recruited to be both his leading lady and mistress, despite her being over 30 years younger. After 25 hit films together, Jayalalitha followed him into politics, becoming leader of the AIADMK, the party MGR set up after being expelled from the DMK in 1972. Larger than life in voluminous silver ponchos and heavy gold jewellery, the now portly Puratchi Thalavi (“Revolutionary Leader”) has taken her personality cult to extremes brazen even by Indian standards. Jayalalitha’s first spell as chief minister, however, was brought to an ignominious end at the 1996 elections, after allegations of fraud and corruption on an appropriately monumental scale. Despite being found guilty by the High Court, she nevertheless later ousted her arch-rival, M. Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, wresting back power for two more spells as Chief Minister in 2001 and from 2002 to 2006. One of her first acts was to exact revenge on Karunanidhi, throwing him and one thousand of his supporters into prison on corruption charges. Predictably, he returned to trump his rival in the state elections of 2006 and the DMK also secured the lion’s share of Tamil Nadu’s seats in the national elections of March 2009.