Book Review: Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation Examines Cinema in Everyday Life

A farmer—his name is Logandurai—sings in a grape orchard in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, far away from the hustle and bustle of the filmmaking center of Chennai, the state capital.

What Logandurai sings is a lyric from a popular Tamil film, and it emerges from the scene so effortlessly and spontaneously that observer Anand Pandian (then a PhD student in anthropology writing his dissertation on agriculture and everyday life in Tamil Nadu) feels an idea spark: Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, a book that begins with a wonderment about life itself as a “cinematic scene.”

Reel World is probably unlike any book on cinema production you have read. It takes seriously the felt reality of the myriad of writers, directors, producers, assistants, art directors, painters, ADR artists, lyricists—name the craftsperson—that collectively bring to the screen 800 or so films annually out of “Kollywood,” a gusto-and-fanfare regional film industry out of Chennai that in many ways eclipses Bollywood (the Mumbai-based mainstream Hindi cinema that the world tends to conflate with all Indian cinema).

In fact, renowned editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The English Patient, The Godfather series), who Pandian roped in to write the book’s preface, points out how Tamil Nadu (and thus Tamil cinema) is culturally and politically distinct. Actors, actresses and screenwriters have regularly been elected the state’s Chief Minister (like the currently serving former actress Jayalalitha); fan clubs brimming with devoted young men operate like political parties; and a concern with Dravidian “nativity,” including commonplace gestures, dress style and histrionics, lends Tamil movies an immediately recognizable aesthetic.

Pandian, however, writes more universally, lushly and philosophically of an unmistakably anthropological concern. Harking back to the moment with Logandurai, in the “narrow gap between a body, a spade, some plants and the earth,” he wonders about the emergence of “cinematic truth.” Anthropologists, a.k.a. ethnographers—those who become immersed in the mores, languages and strata of the societies they enter—take as their raison d’être the enterprise of interpretation and critique. They reflect back through their writing the structured meanings of a community that may not be apparent to its members.

Pandian takes this academic imperative one step further. He literally becomes a wanderer amid his subjects. He vacillates alongside them in their everyday. And away from it all, as he writes up the book, he connects their utterances and toiling dolly movements to a smorgasbord of intellectual giants—Andre Bazin, Gilles Deleuze and Claude Levi-Strauss, to name just three—whose shoulders he stands on. The book sifts expertly and enigmatically across all three levels: daily life, cinematic life and life in the universal. Reel World is actually Pandian’s anthropological paean to creation.

The book also moves resolutely among higher (global, industrial) and lower (individual, regional) levels of analysis. A centerpiece observation across these levels is that Tamil cinema draws from the “affective lives of its makers.” In Hollywood’s studio system, movies are greenlit relatively systematically. In Kollywood, by contrast, there are no systems of audience research. Makers evoke films by taking their own “flighty and unpredictable” instincts as “proxies for the likely reactions of their eventual audiences.” Because nothing is predictable and everything is in flux, moviemakers are not creators as much as they are intermediaries. Seizers of the moment when the clouds part, they rush to film an actor “romancing” a Swiss skyline. But when their films part with them, they begin another romance, one with destiny. They accept that box office rupees are as unknowable as Tamil audience reactions. Creation and destruction are a cinematic cycle as much as an eternal karmic cycle.

The "Fate" chapter in Reel World

The “Fate” chapter in Reel World

Which brings me to how the work is organized. The 17 chapters, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion, follow Pandian’s imagery about the making of 17 film productions he happened to get access to. They also describe 17 moviemaking crafts. For instance, Chapter 2 is about screenwriting; Chapter 6, location shooting; Chapter 8, cinematography; Chapter 14, ADR (and a hilarious anecdote about Pandian’s American accent being deemed a qualification for him to voice Barack Obama); Chapter 15, editing; and Chapter 18, distribution and reception.

However, that’s emphatically not what Pandian names them. Instead, we have chapters that are respectively entitled “Dreams,” “Love,” “Light,” “Voice,” “Rhythm” and “Fate.” He describes these not just as formal properties of cinema but rather as “modes of experience” thrust upon maker, audience and anthropologist alike. What follows in the rest of the review is a parceling of some of these cinematically experiential encounters.

In the chapter “Dreams,” Pandian follows director Mysskin and his team of assistants through the screenwriting process of the auteur’s fourth project, Yuddham Sei [Wage War], a “story of a world composed by dreams.” He understands that for Mysskin, dreams, like films, invite us to tell stories, which is not unusual because since the beginnings of cinema, film have felt like dreams. Pandian describes Mysskin as obsessed with his own dreams, which he imposes on his assistants for storylines. For a stretch of creation, the writer-director inhabits his protagonist lost through his story world, a city of severed limbs. Mysskin confesses that he “always wanted to make dreams, not movies.”

Loglines are often produced inductively, at the end of a laborious back and forth. For Yuddham Sei, the team arrives at this distillation: “A detective follows demons into hell, only to discover they are actually angels.” And yet, not all is ethereal: the team pays meticulous attention to story structure. The goal of the development process, walking the blurry line of the protagonist’s reverie and wakefulness, is to figure out what motivated his bizarre acts. Days of slog unexpectedly catalyze into a frenzy of a final draft. Ultimately, the dream, as story, frees the director’s unconscious. Pandian concludes that Mysskin is doing “something different with dreams than the Freudian tradition he was invoking.”

In this manner, Pandian lays out what he is after: the emergence of creation from the everyday lives of disparate creators. Every chapter that follows is an intellectually spirited variation on the theme. For instance, in Chapter 6, Pandian discusses “Love” as a “queer feeling,” often expressed via the song-and-dance routine that global audiences readily associate with Indian cinema. He notes that songs themselves can be seen as queer because they “fall outside the exigencies of narrative coherence and closure.” They also remind him of the love as “clandestine liaisons” of “queering potential” he encountered in Tamil Nadu’s Cumbum Valley, while doing research for another book. A lot of this love had to do with the “dangers” posed by cinema itself towards which ordinary life “hankers.”

By contrast, in the chapter on “Pleasure,” Pandian discusses other elements of song-and-dance as overwhelmingly heteronormative. He brings up influential feminist scholar Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze as activated by Tamil cinema, where a lot turns on the “promise of [men’s] enjoyment.” Pandian’s intervention here is to round out the picture by explicitly including other points of view, of unsung artists such as choreographers, jib operators and crucially, the female dancers themselves, such as Debi Dutta, who are objects of the male gaze. Hailing from Calcutta (an eastern Indian metropolis), Dutta doesn’t speak Tamil and knows very little about the film. Not more is expected of her than being “sensually available” for an “item song,” which has an instantly familiar aesthetic of seduction, of curve and thrust, where the non-heroine who inhabits it is as desirous as an “item” as the heroine of the narrative is demure as an ideal. Dutta talks herself out of the sleaze, and even though her male co-dancers maintain their distance, sometimes in the thick of filming, press too close to her. In these moments, she yields by telling herself to “just take it.” “Love” might be queer but “Pleasure” is stunningly patriarchal. Pandian demonstrates how Indian and Tamil culture, daily life and cinema have historically had elements of both.

The "Pleasure" chapter of Reel World

The “Pleasure” chapter of Reel World

Other chapters are equally insightful about this cultural tightrope between ordinary and emblematic. In the chapter on “Color,” Pandian aligns Goethe’s idea of “brightness as anarchic” with the feeling of omnipotence sometimes felt by cinematographers in the color grading process, a “sensory laboratory… where you can do anything.” And yet, Pandian chooses to conclude the chapter by deflating producers’ illusion of power. A film such as Quarter Cutting might be boldly risky in its abandonment of blue, but there is no way of knowing, Pandian offers, that the film’s poor box office was not because the audience was denied a certain “cerulean release.”

From the standpoint of argument, Pandian is able to authoritatively submit such theses because he has expertly set up Tamil cinematic production as an avatar of ordinary Tamil culture. More local conjectures are permissible if they follow in the same form. If films as dreams of color and imagination, love and pleasure, light and sound, arise as ungraspable illusions, as signifiers of sansaara, then Pandian’s own anthropology of creation and destruction—of observations about cinema’s vainglorious beginnings and fateful endings—is valid, given this gamut of experiences is set in a predominantly Hindu corner of India and closely affiliated with tenets of Hinduism.

The book appears indulgent only if we resist Pandian’s resurrection. Personally, as someone who grew up in South Asia, I concur with the author: Indian complexity is so dazzling that if you are able to extract a coherent thread to interpret your everyday, then you should run with it. If Pandian’s argument is that India’s cinema producers are best seen as intermediaries between the daily and the divine, it is because that was the ray he found and doggedly followed. On every page of the book, he paints vistas from this trail.

If there is any discontinuity in Reel World, it is brought in purposefully by Pandian himself, as he indulges in offshoot writing experiments to make sense of his raw footage, his ethnographic dailies. Chapter 7, on “Desire,” is written as a single, breathless sentence. Chapter 10, on “Time,” is set against parallel columns, like ageless temples, to “confound the distinction between past and present.” Chapter 16, on “Speed,” is presented as a series of “terse cuts,” his way of working through his lived experience of complexity and identity, form and function.

In every other way, though, this unusually accomplished portrait of moviemaking is a study on continuity. More precisely, it is a study of how one form of “continuity,” the movies, is hard won out of what people in one corner of the globe experience immanently as flux and endless possibility.

Moviemakers anywhere can learn from this, but the lessons might be years in the making. Can you distance yourself from your art and industry enough to see the entire enterprise as located in a particular spacetime? Can you discern what truths your world esteems over others? And can you then, and only then, return to your production—your writing, shooting and editing? If you can, your movies might have the privilege of materializing from a place within a culture and a history. MM

Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation was published by Duke University Press in 2015 (339 pages).