Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation

Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation

by Anand Pandian, Walter Murch

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Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation by Anand Pandian

Reel World explores what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like cinema. Drawing on years of fieldwork with Tamil filmmakers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen in the south Indian movie studios of "Kollywood," Anand Pandian examines how ordinary moments become elements of a cinematic world. With inventive, experimental, and sometimes comical zeal, Pandian pursues the sensory richness of cinematic experience and the adventure of a writing true to these sensations. Thinking with the visceral power of sound and image, his stories also broach deeply philosophical themes such as desire, time, wonder, and imagination. In a spirit devoted to the turbulence and uncertainty of genesis, Reel World brings into focus an ecology of creative process: the many forces, feelings, beings, and things that infuse human endeavors with transformative potential. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375166
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/02/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India, also published by Duke University Press.

Walter Murch is an Academy Award–winning film editor and sound designer, and the author of In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

Read an Excerpt

Reel World

An Anthropology of Creation

By Anand Pandian

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Anand Pandian
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7516-6


Reel World

You could almost smell the onions, even before the bend in the road. Bulbs the size of castor pods, pressed into pairs along crimson ridges of dirt. The sun still hadn't cleared the summit of the mountains to the east. Rivulets of water crept slowly through the hollows of the field, leaving behind maroon trails of soft, wet earth. One corner of the orchard field was still dry, and these new bulbs would lend their shoots only in exchange for water.

Logandurai had been out here all night, running the small motor that powered his pumpset. Far upland from the common well, water seeped through the pipes at a lazy pace. Sometime before dawn, the electricity suddenly went out, when there were still four beds of onions left to irrigate. And so the farmer waited, anxiously, for the power to return.

He thought back to what he'd already done for this crop: all the plowing with his bulls; the travel to a distant city to buy these bulbs; a night of watering that would not end. Then the motor started to thrum once more. Picking up his spade, Logandurai started to cut channels in the dirt walls dividing one bed of plants from another. And as he worked, he began to sing — "With all this desire, I raised a bed of soil, and planted a single shoot."

People sing all the time, to their plants, to themselves, to each other. But here's what struck me when I ran into Logandurai that morning, in a tract of orchards deep in the south of Tamil Nadu. He'd found a tune to match the rhythm of his spade. The lyrics gave him a voice to describe what was happening just then, expressing all the hope and desire of that moment. And what made this possible was the popular Tamil film that had somehow surfaced in his recollections.

Did Logandurai imagine himself as the young woman who sang these lines in the film, a bundle of green shoots in hand and her feet planted into the wet soil of a paddy field? Or did he imagine her, or someone like her, singing this song to someone like him? Grizzled, graying, with burnished skin and an easy smile, he was a handsome man. There was something about the build of his nose and jawline — when we first met, I thought immediately of Richard Gere.

But this middle-aged man in a fraying polyester shirt was not a Hollywood star. He was a farmer of modest means, eking out a living in an obscure village in south India. He worked with halters and plow blades, with paddy, bananas, and onions. He and his wife ate and slept on the floor of a room piled high with jute sacks of grain.

These were their conditions of life. And yet, despite its relentless difficulties, Logandurai could experience this life as a cinematic scene: not in a spirit of escape or denial but instead as the deepest expression of its hope.

What happened that morning in his orchard, over thirteen years ago, has been nagging at me ever since. How could something with such epic dimensions, cinema, slip into a space as intimate as this one, this narrow and fleeting gap between a body, a spade, some plants, and the earth and water among them? What could cinema express about the truth of such experience?


Imagine this scene again. Imagine a camera mounted to the hood of a car as it rounds a bend, toward the same field. The crenellations of onion peel and dirt captured by a macro lens. The glints of light in the running water, thrown from an array of reflective panels pointed at the sky. The bulb of glass, encased in black metal, arcing down to meet the farmer's burnished face. The speakers planted into the loose soil, booming sounds for the man to mime. A heap of spades in case one breaks. Everyone bustling around the scene, careful of where their shadows fall. Someone beside a video monitor, already thinking of how to cut from one shot to another.

Did this happen? Could it happen? "Any person today can lay claim to being filmed," the German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936.

This is a book about experience in a world of cinema, a book about what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like film. Cinema is experience of light and sound, but many other things as well: hope, wonder, desire, pleasure, the drift of dreams and imagination, the movement of rhythm and speed. Cinema has profoundly recast the scope of contemporary experience. Cinema can also help us understand its feeling and texture. This book pursues such understanding by examining how 3 cinematic experience is crafted — the techniques that transform ordinary spaces and moments like this one into elements of a cinematic world.

A cinematic world: I'm guessing that you might know what I mean by this, even if it's been a long time since you've seen a film, even if you've never been to a place as wild for cinema as modern India. I'm guessing that something like this may have happened to you —

You're walking down the road on a damp and cloudy day. The music on your headphones sounds as gloomy as the weather. As you listen, you can see yourself walking. Those around you begin to look like extras on a set.

You stay up watching French films on cable TV. You dream of leaving your job, leaving an abusive husband, working in France for a while, and coming back with enough money to buy a decent house for your kids.

You see an explosion, a fireball, devastated buildings, and panicked victims. Someone asks what happened. Dazed, you don't know what to say. Then you find the words that everyone else is finding. "It was like a movie."

I first met Logandurai a few months before September 11, 2001, in a village at the head of a remote agrarian valley in south India. Cinema here was ubiquitous and inescapable. People kept saying things like this: "My story is like cinema. ... My life deserves a movie. ... Hundred rupee tickets, and I'd still pack the houses." Once I recorded the life of a middle-aged man who worked in the valley's grape orchards. He asked me to trail him through the countryside with a video camera, while he launched each story at a different grove or meadow with the same salutation: "O my dear fans ..."

All of this was somewhat odd, but also strangely familiar. I grew up in Los Angeles, a few miles from the "HOLLYWOOD" letters of the Santa Monica Mountains. For years I expected the bathroom faucet to run red with blood, like the gory Tamil thriller that my parents took me to one weekend at the Montebello Public Library. Or, there was the summer of 1985, when a serial killer, the "Night Stalker," was on the loose in LA. I remember watching from a window as my father stretched in the backyard after a run. I can still summon that dread, the sense of an impending catastrophe beyond the glass, the feeling of being stuck in molasses as the inevitable would come, always in slow motion.

What should we make of such sensations, these feelings of being caught up in some current of life as though it were a film? Some might diagnose severe cases of such confusion between real life and cinema as a very contemporary form of psychic disorder, a "Truman Show delusion." One might seek to lead people suffering from this delusion back to reality, in the way that Truman Burbank finally manages to pierce the shell of the studio staging his life as reality television in the 1998 Hollywood film The Truman Show.

We often think of cinema in just this way: as a stream of images that obscure reality, screen us from the actual conditions of our lives, disable us from reflecting upon the truth of our experience. We tend to think of such an existence as a peculiarly modern fate, a consequence of being awash in a flood of media images. And we tend to assume that, as critics, our task is to lead people around the screen, to reveal whatever still remains invisible to them: You may think you're just enjoying yourself, but you're also taking pleasure in the nation this film glorifies, the social class this film idealizes, the masculine violence this film celebrates.

These problems are real. Critical perspective on them is essential. Too often, however, our critiques have relied upon naïve and flimsy distinctions between truth and fiction, reality and representation, the tangible matter of the world and mere images of it. Must we always seek to step beyond such representations in the name of understanding, and to implore others to do the same? This book seeks a different way of thinking with the worlds that cinema creates, a more intimate way of engaging the feelings of desire and fear that such media make possible. "The act of seeing," as Vivian Sobchack reminds us in a meditation on film experience, "is an incarnate activity."

Suppose that whatever we've done, felt, and thought has always happened in the thick of images. Suppose that reality itself is only this: a boundless multitude of impressions, endless slants of perspective. Suppose that the world is pervaded, even composed by such images: a spectator gazing at a screen and a farmer looking down at a field, to be sure, but also the water seeking a path along the crevices of that soil, the roots reaching down through the medium of that moisture, the pungent odors exploring that space of the air above. Suppose we took all such movements, whether human or not, as image-making activities, as jostling perspectives on a world and its potential for life. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposed a name for this way of looking at things: "the universe as cinema in itself, a metacinema."

Reel world, real world — the universe as a flux of images, and every film an experiment with its reality. How does one grapple with the look and feel of such volatile environments? Our ordinary perception of things always ebbs and flows, coming in and out of focus. But there are those who live more intensely with these cinematic mechanisms, those who constantly work to modulate their force and texture. Say we plunged into the depths of some of their experiments — what would happen to us, and to our understanding of this life in a world of images?


The set is sweltering. Sweating faces, all around, wrapped in blue-green surgical masks — maybe for the swine flu panic in the morning papers, maybe for the paint fumes still heavy in the air. A black locomotive gleams wet under the lightboxes hanging from the rafters. They're rebuilding this colonial-era railway platform for Madrasapattinam, a historical romance between a young Englishwoman and an Indian washerman. Sketches and photographs litter the set: gathered over several years, pulled into plans over many weeks, molded into plastic, wood, and metal in a frantic burst of activity over the past few days.

They've already begun to shoot on one side of this unfinished arena, but then everything grinds to a halt. There's an angry rash spreading across the delicate ivory of the English heroine's face. The mood turns anxious, restless. Krishna scans his clipboard, plotting what to do while the problem is diagnosed. The words Assistant Director are lettered onto the back of his red Adidas T-shirt. He shakes his head, shares a wry laugh. "Anything can happen at any time."

Anything? Really? There are things I want to ask Krishna, but he's already somewhere else, and I'm just a visitor here, trying not to get in the way. I remember what Vishnu Vardhan, a young director and now a good friend, told me one evening at a café in the heart of old Madras (now called Chennai), on break from shooting a gory action thriller. The phone rings, and he imagines his son lying in a hospital bed. A horn sounds on the road behind him, and he can already feel the truck ripping into his car. A guy goes up on stunt wires, and Vishnu can already see the nails in the rafters driving into his head. An SMSbuzzes in his pocket — "Hello sir, I have some 9mm pistols, if you are free, I will come show you" — and he can already sense the watchful eyes that mistake these stunt guns for a terrorist arsenal.

Anything can happen at any time. There is much to worry about in this sense of the radical potential that any moment may bear, but such openness can also be confronted as a field of unexpected promise. This is a book about creation in a world of enduring flux, what William E. Connolly calls "a world of becoming ... marked by surprising turns in time, uncanny experiences, and the possibility of human participation to some degree in larger processes of creativity that both include and surpass the human estate."

Think of that familiar sense of accumulating and even threatening novelty that marks so much of our contemporary experience. How does newness emerge in such a world? What does it take to make a life in the midst of such emergence? How does experience keep pace with the boundless change visible wherever we turn? This book pursues such questions through the creation of Tamil cinema in south India.

Wherever I followed filmmakers like Krishna and Vishnu — the streets and studios of Chennai, the sandstone plateaus of central Karnataka, the soaring bridges of Kuala Lumpur, the mountains of Switzerland, or the deserts beyond Dubai — I found a milieu of tremendous uncertainty. Consider the enormous complexity of filmmaking as a technical and material process. Accidents come in endless varieties: the excitement that crests and wanes with every new story; the protean play of light, wind, and other natural forces shadowing every take; the unforeseeable needs that inevitably trail shot footage into editing and composing studios; the constant failure of actors and equipment to act and react as they should. Directors, cameramen, designers, and editors struggled with this caprice, but I also found them constantly anticipating and improvising with chance events. Everything that was interesting about their cinema seemed to grow from this openness to fluid circumstance.

For many decades, across the wide span of global cinema, there was only one sustained anthropological study of film production: Hortense Powdermaker's Hollywood: The Dream Factory, published in 1950.The book still deserves a close reading, rife as it is with startling and unexpected insights: "The Melanesian puts his faith in coercing the supernatural through using a magical formula, which consists of a spell and rite handed down by tradition. Hollywood people have their formulas too: stars, gimmicks, traditional plots."

The parallel is bracing, this juxtaposition between the contemporary Los Angeleno and an islander of the South Pacific. But this anthropologist had rested her hopes for the future of cinema on the eventual overcoming of such kinship: "The magical thinking and system of production which flows from it," Powdermaker writes, "are probably no more necessary to making movies than the corn dance of the Pueblo Indians is needed to making corn grow."

Modernity has long been described as a triumph of reason over passion, as a mastery of nature's contingency. But I write at a time when this victory seems neither as assured nor as desirable. Filmmaking is compelling precisely because it splices together forms of thinking and feeling, encouraging an openness to the magical powers and dangers of a world resistant to human control. To be sure, filmmakers have strategies at their disposal, techniques designed to provoke particular feelings and sensations. All this depends, however, on how deeply they themselves are affected by their own productions. No one may be found here manipulating automatons from the safe distance of a remote-control panel. Cinema draws its force from the affective lives of its makers: from the immersion of filmmakers themselves in cinematic currents of feeling.

Tamil filmmakers are often hailed in local media as kalai brahmakkal, "creator-gods of the arts." But like so many of the gods of Hindu India, these are individuals engaged in gambles with fate. There are no systematic forms of audience research that the Tamil film industry relies upon: no market surveys, test screenings, quantitative exit polls. Instead, and at every stage, these films are composed by individuals who take their own felt sensations — however flighty and unpredictable — as proxies for the likely reactions of their eventual audiences. A faith in the promise of experience, however fickle: this is why filmmaking is such a compelling arena to examine what it means to inhabit a world of chance.


Excerpted from Reel World by Anand Pandian. Copyright © 2015 Anand Pandian. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword / Walter Murch  ix

Note to the Reader, also a Listener and Seer  xvii

1. Reel World  1

2. Dreams  21

3. Hope  37

4. Space  53

5. Art  69

6. Love  85

7. Desire  99

8. Light  107

9. Color  121

10. Time  135

11. Imagination  151

12. Pleasure  167

13. Sound  181

14. Voice  199

15. Rhythm  205

16. Speed 219

17. Wonder  237

18. Fate  251

19. An Anthropology of Creation  267

Acknowledgments  285

Notes  289

Bibliography  313

Index  329

What People are Saying About This

More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India - David Shulman

"An original, thoughtful, and daring anthropologist, Anand Pandian has written a book ostensibly about the fierce intensities of Tamil cinema and the great cultural themes that pervade it:  hope, color, space, love, desire, light, dream, time. It might, however, be more apt to describe this work as a rich, experimental meditation about the elusive momentum of creativity, the shift in perception when something unexpected happens. This meditation is set in the Tamil country, mainly in its cinema capital, Chennai, whose streets, tea stalls, beaches and offices are beautifully evoked. It is often difficult to decide if the emerging text is driven more by the inner landscapes of Tamil villagers (such as those discussed in Pandian’s superb first book, Crooked Stalks), or by resonant voices from the modernist canon (Bohumil Hrabal, Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Lefebvre, Joyce, Deleuze). The lyrical interweaving of these worlds along with lively vignettes of many of the great names of south Indian cinema as they struggle to define themselves and their work offer us a context-sensitive understanding of ‘cinema as a medium of thought, a way of thinking with the visceral force of moving images.’”

Ordinary Affects - Kathleen Stewart

"Reel World thinks in and through the media of cinema and experience as things of the world. They are like fireflies whose paths flash and cut out. A chance encounter, a glance, or a gesture activates experiments in rhythm and voice, light and sound, a feeling of movement. Streets, migrants, flowers, bullets, children’s textbooks, and bottlefuls of pills form ecologies of incipience. Ontological curiosity laps like an infinity wave in the craving for wonders now."

A World of Becoming - William E. Connolly

"Anand Pandian is a gifted writer. And the sounds, spaces, rhythms, and colors that these creative directors draw together provide rich tapestries. The result is a spiritual work that illuminates life today."

Conversations with Mani Ratnam - Baradwaj Rangan

"Tamil cinema, in many ways, is its own little universe, and it's time someone explored it in the manner of an anthropologist investigating a remote culture. Anand Pandian is, in fact, an anthropologist, and his flavorful, seamlessly narrated book is a fascinating dig into Tamil cinema, its codes, its symbols, how it is made, how it is received."

Indian Cinema in the Times of Celluloid - Ashish Rajadhyaksha

"Anthropology comes together with an intense cinephilia to explore the social circumstances of unstable creativity in Anand Pandian's remarkable book on recent Tamil cinema. He 'shadows’ filmmakers, writers, producers, actors, technicians and sundry characters from its movie industry, and with them tracks a creativity that is between conscious thought and unconscious impulse, between a utopian promise and dangerous lived reality. Never have the ramifications of the cinematic conscious been explored before in India in this way."

Walter Murch

"Of the many unique things about Reel World, the most ambitious is Pandian’s attempt to capture this moment of creation, in writing, composing, directing: the moment that the spark of inspiration connects the individual artist to the numinous forces around him."

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