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Chennai-The Heritage Capital

The city is a vibrant combination of the old and the new, of tradition and change. Here, relics of the Raj stand happily alongside state-of-the-art cyper parks.

Chennai, the gateway to the east coast, is a new city as compared to some others in the south of India; but the colours of its history and contours of its geography make it a fascinating study. The first city of Tamil Nadu was re-christened Chennai from Madras less than two years ago, and that was only the opening of a new chapter in a book that covers 350 years already.

Lapped by the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the east and blown by the Deccan winds from the west, Chennai is a vibrant combination of the old and the new, of tradition and change. Here, Dravidian temples stand alongside churches barely 100 years old, and swank supermarkets co-exist with traditional jewellery shops. And the Central railway station is a classic example of imposing British architecture is juxtaposed with a huge modern office building.

This is the fourth largest metropolis in India, growing from a fort that Francis Day and his superior Andrew Logan (of the East India Company) built on a narrow tract of no-man’s land. Day’s dubash Beri Thimanna had negotiated the land deal with the governor of Vijaynagar. The 5 sq km (approximately) sand strip has now expanded into a 170 sq km metropolis with a population of 6 million. Former villages like Mylapore, Triplicane and Ezhambur (Egmore) are all part of the great city today.

The reason why you have the stamp of the Raj all over the city is, because this was the first major settlement of the British in India. Marks of the European traders are seen at the harbour, and their subsequent colonial designs at Fort St. George, the High Court and the Corporation Building. Religious influences lie enshrined in Santhome Church, St. Thomas Mount and the churches at Mylapore and Triplicane.

Despite the pressures of urbanisation, Chennai has not turned into a concrete jungle with highrises. Rather, the skyline has been left open so it could breathe freely even as it expanded horizontally. There are vestiges of rural life interspersed with modern life, specially in downtown market areas, and life can still afford to move at a leisurely pace. In this land of no winter, laid back life is seen at its leisurely best on the 2-mile long Marina Beach, anytime of the day. For a glimpse of modern hectic life, on the other hand, drop in at Mount Road where you have a few mini-flyovers and some of the biggest film hoardings and cutouts seen anywhere in the country. Rajnikanth is the most conspicuous face on the cutouts and advertisements covering all items: films to cars, clothing and pan masala.

The other must-see places in and around the city are Valluvar Kottam (a massive auditorium built with inspiration from ancient temples), Guindy National Park (a wildlife sanctuary within the city limits), the government museum complex, Anna Salai where you may buy the finest silks of the Deccan, Kishkinta amusement park (2 km south of Chennai), MGM Dizzy World, the Vandalur Zoo which is the second largest in Asia with an area of more than 1,265 acres, heritage village Dakshin Chitra located at Muttukadu, 20 km from Chennai, Filmcity, a one-stop shop for filmmakers and called a video studio, the VGP Golden Beach Resort, Crocodile Bank where Indian and African crocs are bred in captivity and demonstrations are given on venom-extraction in a snake farm, and the Muttukadu Boat House.

The Sri Kapaleeswarar (Shiva) temple in Mylapore serves as an introduction to Dravidian architecture and religious sculpture. Some of the inscriptions date back to 1250 AD, but the present structure was rebuilt by the Vijaynagar kings of the 16th century. The courtyard is adorned with bronze statues of 63 Saivaite Saints (Nayannars) that are carried out in a colourful procession on the eighth day of the 10-day Arupathumoorar temple festival in March-April every year.

The Marina extends from the Cooum river mouth in the north till the boundaries of the 16th century Portuguese town of San Thome in the south, where the San Thome basilica (built in 1896) stands. Marina, the second largest beach in the world, also has a great promenade along with well-tended gardens. At the north end of the beach is Anna Square, the resting place of scholar-statesman L.N. Annadurai. Close to this is the samadhi of M.G. Ramachandran, one of the most popular chief ministers of Tamil Nadu.

The Chennai aquarium is also located on this beach. Across the road, you see the university campus with Indo-Saracenic buildings of the 1930s, the Senate House built by R.F. Chisholm (mid-19th century), the magnificent Chepauk Palace (once the home of Carnatic nawabs) that now houses government offices, Vivekananda House (where Swamiji had lived, now converted into a hostel), and the long and impressive office of the Director General of police (the city’s first Masonic Hall built in the 19th century).

The slump faced by the regional film industry has not dampened the Tamil filmmaker’s spirit.

Action time In Filmcity

No trip to Chennai is complete without a look at the MGR Filmcity. No matter when you drop in, you are sure to witness the shoot of at least five films in this massive film complex

We dropped in after lunch, and discovered this was one of the few nooks in Chennai that was not enjoying a siesta. December is perhaps the best time to be here, as the mellow sun (mellow by southern standards, that is) allows for open air shoots in the afternoon. Sure enough, we bumped into one of the current heartthrobs in Tamildom: Vijay.

He stands aloof inside a bus hired for the shoot of this untitled film by director Majid. The extras pile into the bus to fill the seats, and earn a few quick bucks in the process. “Lights, camera, action!” Vijay opens his handbag flap to draw out a tenner and pays the conductor. The camera zooms in on his hands. “Cut!” Majid looks smug after a satisfactory first take. Heroine Priyanka Chopra is not around today. She plays the daughter of a rich man with whom Vijay, a struggling lawyer, has fallen in love.

Well, the bus sequence continues for another hour: it sure requires a lot of patience to watch a shoot. We decide to move to the floor nearby where Khusboo is shooting the 25th episode of the Tamil version of Kaun Banega Crorepatni. Time and motherhood have changed the image of the former sweetheart of the Tamil and Hindi screens. In her heyday, temples had been erected by her fans around the state with idols resembling her... but all that is in the past.

The lady has no pretences. She’s as serious about keeping an eye on her daughter (who has accompanied her to the sets) as she is about the show she’s conducting. Little Avantika is a year and three months old. Khusboo took a break from tinseltown about three years ago to get married to director Sundar C. and start a family. Now she’s back to the fold in a new avatar; instead of looking for heroine’s roles, she looks at direction and production. Her current project as a producer is the serial Marumagal (Bahu in Hindi) for the Star Vijay channel. And she will debut soon as a director with a potboiler featuring one of the hottest heroines of the Tamil screen, Simran.

“My kind of films reach out to the middle class and the rural areas,” she tells you honestly. “Family dramas that drip emotion and high-voltage action are bound to pull ladies to the theatres.” She believes, “the decade-long slump in regional cinema is due to the fact that filmmakers have been going overboard” with their production costs. “But how much fanfare can you generate by shooting in exotic locales with stars who charge fancy prices?” she asks.

Khusboo has no intention to return to Bollywood, though at least three of her six Hindi films had done reasonably well. “Remember Anil Kapoor’s sister in Meri Jung?” she asks. But now she’s happy working on home turf where “everything is a lot cheaper than in Mumbai.”

It is the relatively relaxed, yet professional, work environment that draws Mumbai hotshots to the Tamil floors. You have Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala making brisk bucks here in-between their hectic schedules in Mumbai. A total of 125 films had been shot in Filmcity last year. It is a complete film complex (or a video studio) that is equipped with the biggest air-conditioned floor in Asia (the charges are Rs 9,000 per call sheet plus electricity expenses), a modern scoring room, dubbing facilities, cameras and all other services required till the final mixing. The premises covers 76 acres and has 46 locations that include a mini village, a police station, a bus stop, a court, a jail, a temple, a mosque, a tank, a well, an Italian style garden, a Mughal garden and an amusement park that is open to the public.

The slump in the film business has hit the studios too, which is why they look for alternative sources of income from amusement parks and other services offered to non-film clients. Wedding functions, parties and software camps are also allowed on these premises for a fee of Rs 20,000 per day. The regular film-related fees are Rs 400 per hour for dubbing, Rs 3,500 per call sheet for recording, and Rs 400 per hour/call sheet for special effects. On August 31, 1994, the amusement park was inaugurated and subsequently, leased out to a private party for Rs 1.70 lakhs per year. The fee hike deal is 10 per cent every 12 months. All kinds of rides are available here, except water rides. The tank is available for boating though which costs Rs 10 only. Incidentally, this tank was passed off as the lake in Ooty in several films.

MGR’s Filmcity’s closest competitor is AVM Studios and Vahini trails as a distant third. To keep ahead of competition, Filmcity has quite a few upgradation plans up its sleeve. It is going to convert 34 acres of land into a “knowledge city” where IT industries, Films Division, and the national film institute will be invited to hold programmes and projects. To encourage more filmmakers to work here, the charges have already been slashed: non-AC floors are available for only Rs 2,500. Access is easy, no government permission is required to enter the premises though you have to pay an entry fee of Rs 50. Do visit the permanent photo exhibition here.

Since 1994, Rs 26 crores has been spent to promote and develop this studio. Dubbing will be made digital this year, and new cameras will arrive by January. Directors who like to frequent this studio are Sundar C., Shankar, S.P. Muthuraman, K. Balachander, Rama-nadan and Kamal Hassan.

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