Trailing the Artisans of Oneiric Worlds in Anand Pandian's 'Reel World'

Reel World reconciles the recondite with the banal, the sublime with the quotidian, and the real with the mythological.

Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation

Publisher: Duke University Press
Author: Anand Pandian
Publication date: 2015-11

Decoding the phantasmagoria on-screen while navigating the labyrinthine networks of India’s Tamil cinema calls for inspired writing. Thankfully, the cicerone who takes us through these oneiric protean worlds can reconcile the recondite with the banal, the sublime with the quotidian, and the real with the mythological. Anthropologist Anand Pandian’s Reel World (2015) is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of academic work on popular Tamil cinema. Just two decades ago, the field was exiguous; a paucity that had its basis in contempt as India’s litigious intelligentsia thumbed their noses at the lowbrow. This reversal of fortunes is attributable to gifted intermediaries like Pandian. The taut prose, the espial documentation, and cogitations make Reel World a work of superfluous quality.

In the book’s fifth chapter, entitled ‘Art’, we go on-location to the sets of an action film where the filmmakers are constructing an overpass-like structure across a ravine. Unwittingly axiomatic, the metaphor of a bridge serves to epitomize Pandian’s enterprise: to interosculate popular cinema with aesthetic theory and philosophy while capturing an artisanal humanism. In the same chapter, Pandian uses the musings of an art director preparing the set of a kitschy action film as a launchpad to commence a wider discussion about ‘naturalism’, the avant-garde, and Claude Levi-Strauss’ theory about creation. Yet, the theoretical does not overwhelm the personal stories of those making these films; both balance adroitly for an engaging read. Naysayers who scoff at extrapolating any intellectual worth from popular entertainment are likely to have their presuppositions challenged.

Reel World invites us to see creativity as an aesthetic and technical process in this anthropology of cinema. Based on the Deleuzean theory of “metacinema”, the recommendation is to heighten our senses to perceive “the universe as a flux of images, and every film an experiment with its reality”. Ambulating from one atelier to another, the book intimately trails those who assemble, animate, and orchestrate this “world of images”. The central thesis pivots on the conception of an “ecology of cinema”, or putting “the medium back into the world, back into the environment from which it arises, the web of relations through which it grows.” The journey into the ontology of a Tamil film is facilitated by chapters named after various sensations and domains of experiencing the medium: hope, color, space, love, desire, light, dream, and time.

The spirit of Reel World can be summarized in a statement that looks set to be cited in research articles about Tamil cinema for years to come: “Cinema here bends itself toward ordinary life, while ordinary life hankers after cinema, to the point where these domains become hard to distinguish.” Credit goes to Pandian for demonstrating this correlation throughout his book.

Far from being abstruse, all film buffs would enjoy the read. Cinephiles would relish the behind the scenes look at Billa (2007), Malaikottai (2007), Subramaniyapuram (2008), Kanden Kadhalai (2009), Aval Peyar Tamilarasi (2010), Ayirathil Oruvan (2010), Bana Kathadi (2010), Drohi (2010), Easan (2010), Nan Mahan Alla (2010), Tamil Padam (2010), Va (Referred to in the book by its working title Quarter Cutting, 2010), Yuddham Sei (2011), and Siruthai (2011). We hear from a variety of creative agents: producers, directors, stars, actors, music composers, cinematographers, writers, stunt coordinators, dance choreographers, and even a dancer who does a cabaret number. Reel World demythologizes the medium, a brave venture in a region where cinema continues to facilitate the vainglorious deification of men (though to a lesser extent than before). By laying-bare the equal roles of meticulous curating and capricious improvisation the mechanisms behind the thaumaturgies are uncloaked for what they are.

Yet, the darker realities of the film industry warrant further examination. The phenomenon of actress suicides, often a result of exploitation, as well as the ‘riches to rags’ lives of some celebrities, may have further variegated Reel World. Yet, the book has its fair share of cautionary tales. In one, thespian Sivakumar, a leading actor in the '70s and '80s, recollects how he brought this two- or three-year-old son to a screening of his new film in a theatre. In the film’s climax, when a mob beats his character into a bloody mess, his son gets hysterical and starts crying that they are beating his father. The actor would rush his son out of the theatre and try to placate him with ice cream, but the child was beyond pacification. As he looks back on the incident, he asks Pandian:

When they magnify that and show it… the father being beaten, the slippers coming down on him, when all that happens... ice cream is sweet and good, but in his mind, the father is being beaten. All of that will reach within those children, no?

Of course, the irony is: the traumatized child would grow up enamored by cinema, and become an actor himself.

Most of the directors interviewed belong to a younger generation of emerging filmmakers, cinephiles who decided to actualize their own filmic fantasies. While Pandian does mention the Tamil New Wave “of gritty and experimental Tamil films, conversant with contemporary developments in global cinema yet faithful all the same to the vicissitudes of life in south India”, not all the films in Reel World fall into this category. Perhaps he could have focused entirely on the Tamil New Wave, but that would mean the action-masala films would remain delitescent. Nevertheless, the completed fieldwork is staggering.

The cathexis with nativism -- the mooring in an indigenous prosaic -- establishes Tamil cinema’s contradistinction to Bollywood. "Provincial" is an invective often thrown at films from Tamil Nadu, though Pandian avoids such a sweeping claim. However, the minutiae reveal just how profoundly transnational stimuli and Universalist idioms inspire this supposedly parochial industry.

The second chapter of Reel World tracks the discussion between visionary director Mysskin (Shanmugha Raja’s screen name is of Dostoyevskian origin) and his assistant directors. We find him speaking psychoanalytically, referencing David Mamet, idolizing Akira Kurosawa as well as Takeshi Kitano, and acknowledging the influences of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The craftsmen behind Yuddham Sei are cerebrals who ruminate deeply about their art and it shows in this true-to-the-genre thriller. Likewise, in chapter seven, director Selvaraghavan aspires to emulate the French New Wave while an actress in his film reads François Truffaut between takes of an untitled film under production.

Prominently, in chapter 11, actor Karthi (Sivakumar’s crying son in the earlier recollection), now a shining star in the Tamil film universe, speaks about Bruce Lee before shooting a fight scene in Siruthai. He quotes Constantin Stanislavski while discussing performative modes with Pandian and likens his film career to his serendipitous journey writing a Masters Thesis in New York. In chapter 14, Pandian even recounts how he ended up doing the voiceover for a faux US President Barack Obama (see video, below), based on “how people would think Americans talk”, in the spoof Thamizh Padam.

Only seemingly insular, Reel World reveals that at the subterranean level the global and transcendental does conflux with the local in Tamil film art, even if farcically; proving that when it comes to the world of cinema there can be no autarky in inspiration.

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