In 2014, Pa. Ranjith released Madras to high critical acclaim and commercial success. The political drama focuses on Vyasarpadi, a neighborhood in working-class North Chennai. The film follows Kaali (Karthi), an educated young man working at an IT firm, and his slow crescendo into politics and political violence in the area. While Madras, in line with Pa. Ranjith’s ideologies, grapples directly with social justice and political issues of the city, more subtle is its use of urban space, and the themes of spatiality and temporality as an anti-establishment weapon.
The majority of Madras’s story revolves around a key space – a painted wall in the dilapidated public housing projects of Vyasarpadi. For decades, this wall has been painted with the face of a late politician, Krishnappan (V.I.S. Jayapalan), who represented the region, albeit his party hasn’t represented that constituency for a while. The ruling party, led by Maari (Charles Vinoth) followed by Kaali’s best friend Anbu (Kalaiyarsan), has been trying hard for decades to repaint the wall with their party, met with resistance from Krishnappan’s son Kannan (Poster Nandakumar).
Of course, the wall itself is trivial. It doesn’t really matter which political party “owns” the wall, and it won’t affect the material conditions of the people living in the housing board. What’s important is ownership of space, and two political parties, one “good” and one “bad”, in constant war over it. The vicinity of the wall claims many deaths – both accidents and murders – and residents believe the space is cursed. The battle for ownership of the area has resulted in bloodshed, but only of the people living in the neighborhood, not those who own it. Those fighting for ownership – the politicians – are rarely harmed. Rarely in the film do we leave this space, and the wall and its space almost operate as a character.
The wall not only has spatial significance, but also temporal significance. The wall is a reminder of not only who the masters are, but who they have been. It acts to deny the history and retroactively nullify the self-respect of the residents. The somewhat faded wall, older than many of the residents, exists to remind the locals – ownership of this space is not only ours, but was also never yours.
Kaali, standing in front of the wall, discusses with Anbu about how politicians preach about the importance of Tamil culture and Tamil justice, yet won’t marry their daughters to a man of another caste. This dialogue – almost said in passing – unlocks the entire film to the viewer. The physical space of the wall is simply the physical space of Tamil Nadu in addition to the abstract space of Tamil public consciousness. The two real-life parties of Tamil Nadu, DMK and ADMK, are in a constant tug of war over ownership of the Tamil space, physical and abstract. In this battle, the oppressed are used as pawns, much like the residents of Vyasarpadi. They are killed and face hardships in this battle, which they themselves are passionate about. However, as the film’s twist goes on to portray, the two sides are not at all opposed – rather, it is the powerful opposing the powerless. Even the most “progressive” politicians try to claim ownership of space, rather than giving that space to the people.
The solution, according to Pa. Ranjith, is twofold. In anger, Kaali and the residents vandalize the wall. Rather than simply asking for it to be changed, space must be reclaimed. But that’s only half the battle. Ownership of space must be productive, and Kaali does this by converting it to a school for underprivileged children. By allowing the space to become one of empowerment, he allows it to build its own tools of further progress.