Dreams From Their Fathers

A photographer comes to terms with the mystical allure of Tamil cinema

Inside Naaz Theatre in Coimbatore
Inside Naaz Theatre in Coimbatore
Photographs by null Text by Bharathy Singaravel
01 August, 2020

In his book Karaindha Nizhalgal, the Tamil author Ashokamitran writes that the film industry “works on the assumed certainty that the present is permanent.” The novel tracks people inextricably attached to Tamil cinema, even as the industry buffets them with absurdities and anguish, rewards them with success and power, and consumes their entire lives.

The photographer Balaji Maheshwar’s seven-year project Dear Cinema maps this treacherous love affair through his family’s association with the industry over three generations. He knits together photographs he found of his grandfather, a successful actor and politician, with photographs he took of his father, an aspiring actor and cinema obsessive, and images of various spaces in which the industry weaves its dreams. He photographs single-screen theatres, both in their quiet moments and during the fever-pitch excitement of a “first day, first show.” He captures the performative cine-politics of Tamil Nadu—the devotion, the theatricality, the ecstasy that sometimes veers close to religious euphoria—a phenomenon he admits to having participated in as a “cinema fanatic” while in school and college. There is a touch of humour in these photographs, an ability to satirise his past self. The crazed adoration expressed within the darkness of the theatre enabled him to confront an issue that had percolated into his own life: “how the world of cinema suspended my world (family) from reality.”

“Sometimes I wonder if Cinema has been the sole reason for me and my family to be where we are now,” Balaji writes in his artist’s statement for the project. In 1956, his grandfather ran away from his village, Srivilliputhur, to Madras. He was “a devotee” of the actor MG Ramachandran, Balaji told me, and one day joined a crowd outside Krishna Pictures, where discussions were being held about the next MGR release, Madurai Veeran. MGR noticed him in the crowd and beckoned him over for a one-on-one chat. Balaji said that film stars sometimes did this to elevate their stature among their fans.

Bharathy Singaravel is a freelance culture reporter. She is keenly interested in Tamil cinema and protest music, and their overlaps with caste and electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. She has written on these issues for The WireScroll, Firstpost, The News Minute, The Federal, Newsclick, the Indian Cultural Forum and Umbra.