“Anything can happen at any time,” says Anand Pandian, echoing one of the Tamil film directors depicted in his book Reel World: An Ethnography of Creation. This sense of radical potential and immediacy infuses and enlivens Pandian’s writing, which passionately conveys the wonder, hope, pleasure, and dreams given form in the world of Tamil cinema. Although critical of its male-centric gaze and violent tendencies, Pandian writes with affection for the subject as he argues that a sustained engagement with cinema, whether it originates from Hollywood or Kollywood, lends us insights into creative processes and perceptions. The cinematic “reel world” is a metonym for the creative potential that surrounds us as embodied and sentient beings in any given moment, if we would cultivate the perception of a maker. To the eye of an active perceiver, the moment is pregnant with possibility, where light, color, sound, love, pleasure, and the imagination collide to bring us to our senses.
Immersed in this metacinema, Pandian is not a detached observer, but an active creator for whom a conversation with his young son about Carlos Cruz-Diez’s installation Chromosaturation yields insights equal to those with colorists in Chennai, for his chapter “Color.” Frequently exposing the seams of his own process to show how the time of fieldwork, memory, and writing become compressed on a single page, Pandian inspires us to consider what written ethnography can do; how style, form, and structure are not ancillary to content. For example, he asks, “What would it mean to write musically, to write with rhythm, to be sure, but also with pitch, melody?” This very chapter, “Sound,” contains sections with a rolling heteroglossia of descriptive passages and quoted song lyrics that dip and bend, up, down, and across the page, to an implied melody. This is one of many instances where Pandian’s writing simulates the formal properties of cinema, conjuring the sounds and sights of films many of us may never see, but feel as though we have seen through his writing, while intimating that much of our apprehension of the world is already irrevocably cinematic.
That Pandian is not himself a filmmaker becomes somewhat contentious amongst his filmmaker-subjects. Several ask when he will finally make his own film, while one director goes so far as to tell him that he cannot fully understand what he and other filmmakers do until he joins them in their craft. Pandian proclaims to these would-be cinévangelicals that his medium is the word, and it is clear from the introduction that he can imagine skeptics on the flipside of the ethnography, amongst scholars, when he asks, “Why tether an enterprise as serious as critical reflection to things as fickle as images, feelings, and sensory impressions?” He quotes Lucien Taylor’s proclamation in the nineties that “iconophobia” drives anthropology’s dismissal of the moving image as a legitimate means for the production of knowledge. Given the book as a whole, it is clear that Pandian’s question about the irreconcilability of critical thought with images, feelings, and sensory impressions is rhetorical, and, yet, that the question arises speaks to a continued, deep-seated discomfort among many about the place of cinema and “new media” in academia, especially when it is not overtly educational or informational. That said, Pandian’s writing beautifully speaks to the importance of cinema as an ethnographic subject. As to his participation, Pandian willingly contributes where he can, assisting with the construction of a makeshift bridge over a ravine for the set of the Telegu film Vikramarkudu and somewhat reluctantly lending his voice to the part of Barak Obama for the film Tamil Padam. His lines are, “Mr. Shiva, you gotta do this job. Only you can kill Pan Parag Ravi and Swarnakka.” Followed by a plea in Tamil, “Americave ungalai than nambiku:” All of America is counting on you. Although Pandian feels alienated when he first hears these lines with a live audience in Chennai, his mother is so moved during a screening of the film in Los Angeles that she shouts, “That’s my son!”
One of many remarkable qualities of Reel World is the vulnerability Pandian reveals as an ethnographer and writer. He isn’t sure if the fragments he describes will come together as a coherent book. Likewise, his fieldwork is broken up and strung out in fitful spurts, so he misses out on a number of events. In the end, all of this is to the benefit of the text, because it gives us glimpses into the laborious process of making and re-making, akin to what it is to edit a film, where the structure may not always be apparent until the material has been worked and re-worked. In this way, Pandian’s self-described methodology for Reel World is akin to “wildlife photography,” where rich ethnographic vignettes stand in for a world teeming with life. In Reel World, images, feelings, and sensory impressions are allowed to run free—wild things that they are—on their own islands, as conceptually diverse as space, rhythm, speed, and fate. Pandian’s writing evokes the formal properties of cinema, employing cuts to splice through time, intercutting ethnographic scenes with theory and reflections, to convey the expansive world of Tamil cinema, one that extends beyond the plots or images of particular films, and reaches outward to an entire world of experience and affects as they move us through motion pictures. Through this lens, Pandian asks us to consider what it is to see the world from “the inside of things,” to adopt an inquisitive, child-like gaze and lend an open ear to the world, toward an anthropology of creation.
Stephanie Spray is an anthropologist, filmmaker, and phonographer working in the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Her films have screened around the world in film festivals and art exhibition contexts, including MoMA, the Whitney, the New York Film Festival, Viennale, and the Locarno International Film Festival.