Director Vijay tells us how his crew recreated Madras of yore with a combination of research, set-work and visual effects

What did the city look like 65 years ago? The country was at the cusp of Independence. The Madras Presidency hogged most regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, with Madharasapattinam as the commercial capital and at the heart of the freedom struggle in the South.

Tamil cinema makes a brave attempt to bring the era alive, as the Rs. 20-crore Arya-starrer “Madharasapattinam”, directed by Vijay (“Kireedom” and “Poi Solla Porom”) releases next month.

“The basic plot was a love story between a British girl and an Indian boy, and I needed Madras in 1945 as a backdrop,” says writer-director Vijay, an associate of filmmaker Priyadarshan.

Few references

“We had very few references of what the city looked like. Kamal Sir showed us Mylapore of 1947 in ‘Hey Ram', but the visual effects options back then were limited, and I had worked under Priyadarshan on ‘Kanjivaram' (the film spanned a period between 1919 to 1948) and ‘Siraichalai' set in 1919, so I had some idea about the work this would require. We couldn't find any film footage, and there were no videos back then, no matter how much we tried combing through the National Library here and the British Library in Pune. All images back then were in black and white, so we had no colour reference at all,” explains Vijay.

“People from 1945 are still alive, and we didn't want them to catch us by our throats. So, we decided to go meet them. S. Muthiah and Manohar Devdas helped us a lot with inputs. Mr. Muthiah gave us books because he had come here only in 1960. Mr. Manohar Devdas was here only in the 50s. But, he described the sights and sounds of the Madras traffic, trams, landscape etc. We met Mr. Ramasamy, who was Rajaji's P.A., and is now 85 years old. We met one Mr. Menon, who had a tea-shop on Mount Road, back then. I had three associates collecting clips and photographs from The Hindu, Kalki and Ananda Vikatan.”

The team referred to ‘Memories of Madras' columns (from The Hindu) and collected as many pictures of cars and transport for reference. Books, including Chennai Through The Ages by P. Rajaraman, Madras Rediscovered and Madras — the Past and the Present by S. Muthiah helped the research further. Art director V. Selva Kumar (“Iyarkai”, “E”, “Peraanmai”, “Phir Milenge”), cinematographer Nirav Shah, and the visual effects team from EyeCube collaborated to put all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

“We just kept poring through research from September 2008, and the deeper we got into it, we realised how much deeper we had to go, and we had to curb our enthusiasm and remind ourselves, ‘ok, this is not the story, it's only the backdrop'. It's fiction set in the backdrop of history. By March 2009, we started shooting because we had everything storyboarded with shot-division.”

The film has nearly 22 minutes of visual effects to recreate the beach areas, Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Rajaji Salai, Central Station and its interiors, Triplicane, Pycrofts Road, Mount Road with Spencer's and New Elphinstone Theatre, among other lanes and sights of Madras of yore.

“Luckily, my producers AGS Entertainment and Kalpathi S. Aghoram believed in the content, and asked us to go ahead despite the risk involved in a subject of this nature. We are showing an Indian boy in love with an English girl. Falling in love with the ‘enemy' and the ‘enemy' falling in love with you at a time when we hated them and they hated us.”

Retain authenticity

Apart from Madras, the crew also had to put up a Delhi set in Mysore to maintain the authenticity of events. “A few of the key incidents in the film are rooted in history. Such as how Lord Mountbatten announced the date for Independence to the media on June 6. So, we had to employ look-alikes for Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten. Did you know that August 15 wasn't considered a good day? The astrologers considered it a kari naal (black day), and requested freedom at night because the date couldn't be changed. And, that's how we got freedom at midnight!”