(I wrote this post as part of my series on the Tamil Cinema of yore but clean forgot to publish it online and it was resting somewhere in the cavernous interiors of my hard disk, when the news of the passing away of comedian Loose Mohan jolted my memory of this post and helped resurrect it. That and the fact of the Madras day celebrations, so heres my tribute to that old seductress Madras City, who cradled us all since our birth, taught us to live with the fragrance of Jasmine, the scent of Morning Showers, the stench of River Cooum and the “smell” of of Kothawal Chavadi all at once.)
Dont tell me you havent heard of Madras Bhashai? Once upon a time, long, long ago when Chennai was still cosmopolitan Madras (before the parochial politicians decided to play name politics), there was a distinct language for the city a stylish fore-runner of the tamilish which twitteratis and facebookies now use with gay abandon. Yes, I am talking about that delectable language called Madras Bhashai. You didnt need to be born in the city to pick it up, everywhere you went, the rickshawpullers and autodrivers (somehow taxis never picked up much in madras, maybe because of the narrow streets) educated you on its usage and then you got it automatically by hearsay.
Pophams Broadway (as it was known then) was the place where you could hear it in its most pristine form- starting with “annathe, vathiyar, kaithe, kasmalam etc”. Other areas like T.nagar and Mylapore had their versions too- slightly modified to reflect the local needs “aiyerrey….for anyone who looked vaguely like a brahmin” and “settu..for those unfortunates who were born fair in a land predominantly of dark skinned peoples” and this prejorative was usually used to demand a higher “beram” or rate from the customer, for the locals were not usually worth bargaining with, for they knew that Chintadripet and Egmore were on either side of Cooum river and not in neighbouring states.
The Tamil cinema of that era had certain stalwarts who used the language on screen and popularized it, starting with Cho Ramasamay as fine a comedian then as he is a sharp political analyst now, that versatile actor Chandrababu, who requires a post all by himself, if I am to do any justice to him, Thengai Srinivasan, Surlirajan and last but not the last Loose Mohan. And not to forget that woman of all roles and all accents Aachi Manorama, who could speak the bashai with the best of them.
Cho and Manoramas duet “Vaa Vadhyarey vootanda, nee varangakatti naan vudamaten” where Cho plays the iconic character of Jam Bazaar Jaggu (which act he was to repeat in many other movies) still stands evergreen in the memories of many old tamil film afficionados. Thengai Srinivasan had the gift of saying absolute nonsense words (like the lyrics of the hit song Macarena?) and make them sound credibly part of the dialogue “Aing Jingchak” was one of his gems. One of his best movies was Krishnan Vandhan, which should really be on the top of everyone’s to see list, that is everyone who enjoys madras bhashai and comedy. These two were the flagbearers of the Bhashai in the sixties and seventies before they faded away to be replaced by newer stars.
And enter the next generations stars like SurliRajan, another multifaceted actor like the evergreen Nagesh, and who could do both physical comedy and dialogue comedy. His act as the always drunk rickshaw puller in so many of his movies (with that drawn out Annaathey) created a special place for him in the hearts of so many real rickshawmen (next only to Vathiyaar MGR and his Rickshawkaran act). Surli as he was known had a naturally high pitched voice and and he could sing, dance and even played the villain in a few later movies. He really was one of a kind. And then came the last of the madras bhashai specialists- actor “Loose” Mohan, a man who almost patented the slow drawling “Kaithey” (aka- Kazhudha or Donkey). He was the last of the breed and though he kept the flag high for a few years the death knell of the Madras Bhashai had been sounded even by then.
Times changed, the business of movies changed to big budget extravaganzas to reflect the average age of the cinema going audiences who preferred mass hero’s who refused to speak the local tongue in the local accents in an attempt at stylish dialogue delivery and their legions of fans who followed them blindly believing that a dialogue starts and ends with “aiiyii” shouted in a high pitched voice. Also the landmark film studios of Madras like Vijaya-Vauhini, Jupiter Pictures, Devar Films, AVM were being closed down one by one or reducing their output along with the changing times and audience tastes. Add to this lethal mix, a new generation of film makers from the hinterlands, people like Bharathiraja (Bakyaraj, Manivanan, Ramarajan etc to right down to Sasikumar, Samudrakanni, Hari, Vetrimaran, Pasanga Pandiraj) who were migrants to the city (and alien to its ethos) and who preferred to work in the comfort of their own native places and hence used actual locations for shooting, heralded a change in the language used in films. The scripts were all written in the local dialects – Madurai, Theni, Kovai, etc in a quest for authenticity and the need for Madras Bhashai disappeared- what is known as “moussu koranjudichu”. The final nail in the language’s coffin was driven by those directors who preferred to shoot in Tamil but used the film as as a backdrop for larger national audiences, people like Maniratnam, Shankar and Rajiv Menon, who did not make movies for the local audience tastes.
Language is a living thing, for with passage of time, language evolves to reflect the culture of a place at that particular time. As the large scale influx of people from the southern districts into the capital city peaked, the original inhabitants, those who spoke the old Madras Bhashai, learned to speak the new language which dominated all the economic spheres to earn their livelihoods and words like “kadupethrar, ariva, aatheee, ambuttu, vareela” etc came into common parlance driving out the old usages underground, till only a few of the original settler families of madras can now understand the old Madras Bhashai, leave alone speak it. And the future generations will probably wonder at hearing the words “Madras Bhashai” and ask what is it? Was it real? And spoken on the streets? And add one more to the list of dead languages.
So in the future if a rare person says to you “Vaabaa/Vaamey….ullara vandu kundikko, enna nyna nashta thundriya?” dont panic..he is just inviting you inside to sit and eat breakfast.
(P.s. I first realized that what I speak is pure madras bhashai and not proper literary tamil when I went down south to the thanjavur medical college where the minute I opened my mouth people used to automatically ask me “madras’a? based on my tamil prononciation)