Anand Pandian opens his chapter on color by describing his pupils dilating during an eye examination and the world dissolving into indistinct “dabs and streams of color.” For Pandian, the eye exam distills a basic truth about cinema—that it operates at a pre-conscious level stimulating new forms of sensate experience. Cinema, for him, is not a set of texts, an economic institution, or part of the human-oriented, discursive world but operates on a more primary level. “What is this world beyond us and the sociocultural worlds we construct?” he asks, citing Eduardo Kohn (17). Pandian’s larger focus is not really on cinema at all. Cinema is of interest because it is a sensation-inducing machine that gives rise to new experiences that germinate in unplanned ways.
Reel World is indebted both conceptually and formally to the rich literature on affect and posthumanism. Pandian tacks between intense, close description of events unfolding and discussions of philosophical thinkers—Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Simondon, Freud, Chakrabarty, Taussig, Heidegger, etc.—that loosely frame those events. He seeks not just to describe creation but to enact it through his own literary form. In filmic terms, it means he switches between extreme close-up and wide establishing shots, eschewing all the film grammar that lies in between. There is little to no discussion of the literature on South Asia, on Indian film, or on the other markers of the middle ground that might provide context and texture to the world he is describing. This is the literature that (let’s face it) dominates most of the texts that we read and write in anthropology, and it means that Reel World is a sustained attempt to write differently—one that I found compelling. But it raises questions about what it means to do without the middle ground and what this might mean for an anthropology of creation. There is a productive tension in the text that pushes us (me, at least) to think about how it is we might take conceptual insights from posthumanism and combine them with other approaches less antagonistic to the historical.
The tension emerges because, as much as Pandian wishes to focus on the affectual operation of cinema occurring before the onset of consciousness, he also realizes that cinema is deeply social, enmeshed in human-centered relations and, to a great degree, any concept of creation has to take this into account. Pandian has always had a sophisticated take on the slippage between cinema and real life, how ordinary people standing in fields, sitting in offices, and waiting for buses play in their minds and bodies with the worlds that cinema gives to them, slipping between one and other. “Cinema bends toward ordinary life,” he writes elegantly, “while ordinary life hankers after cinema to the point where these domains become hard to distinguish” (28). This is a world fully enmeshed within, not beyond, the human, and Pandian wanders a little between his desire to focus on the pre-conscious, affectual side of cinema and his understanding of its deeply emotive place in Indian worlds.
The medium Pandian writes about is a popular cinema, what we once described as mass culture, intimately tied to the ideologies, structures, and aesthetics of modern capitalism, and once analyzed through the lens of determination. Pandian, though, wants to show how Tamil cinema gives rise to new forms of emergence, openness, and possibility. He cites André Bazin on Picasso to emphasize this point: “Each of Picasso’s strokes is a creation that leads to further creation not as a cause leads to an effect but as one living thing engenders another” (274). Pandian is eloquent and insightful on film as process and the coming to be of the experiences it creates. But this is, of course, about as far from a discussion of mass culture as you can get. The mass has long been recognized as being dominated by repetition, repressing individual creativity, being too emotive, and lacking reason. In non-Western worlds these qualities of massness are mapped onto the ritual and traditional, and leaving one vulnerable to the taunt of failing to be properly modern. To make his argument about emergence and possibility, then, Pandian has to place an entire way of thinking about the mass to one side, excising it from an anthropology of creation. Creation, here, takes place before and beyond the human rather than in full dialogic relation to it. “So much seems to turn, both ethically and politically,” Pandian tells us, “on learning to see beyond the conceits of human agency and its sometimes murderous consequences” (17). Can we fold the mass back into an idea of creation and emergence? If politics is defined as taking place only when we can move beyond human-centered meaning, then a politics based on examining the operation of a form of capital or how that form becomes transduced into excessive, fantastical creations—and how they become part of creation—becomes harder to understand.
Some of these issues can be seen in the chapter on color, which—along with chapters on light, sound, rhythm, etc.—reveal for Pandian the sensory unexpectedness that film provokes. He tracks the production of the film Quarter Cutting, and focuses in particular on the surreal hues and saturated colors that the filmmakers fabricate. He is less interested in what these colors mean or why filmmakers adopt specific aesthetic strategies but focuses on the affective intensity of being subject to color at a level prior to the sensible (when the object-like quality of objects dissolves into “dabs and streams of color”). The chapter thus focuses most on how it is that directors, colorists, set directors, and cameramen produce a tinted, saturated world, thereby evoking that sense of color in its readers.
On another level, acting as counterpoint to his main argument, Pandian realizes these colors have histories. Christopher Pinney (2004) has argued that British colonialists saw control of representational techniques and color as a way of dismantling a Hindu worldview and making religious subjects secular and modern. The excessive Indian attachment to color, in this light, prevented the adoption of the realist sensibility of modernity. Moreover, as Jordanna Bailkin (2014), Natasha Eaton (2012), Amiya Rao (1992), and Michael Taussig (2009) have shown, the palette of colors available to India and Western art was itself structured by imperial histories of labor and technology. Indigo or Indian yellow were specific pigments made available through empire and the very notion of “color” as we know it now is inseparable from the technical histories of pigment production themselves woven into colonial rule.
Funnily enough, Pandian gives us a modern update on this technical history, focusing on the introduction of a film stock, Fujifilm Eterna Vivid 500, created for its ability to produce intense colors. Pandian also describes the painstaking editing of scenes wherein the film is scanned and edited, scene by scene, to increase the saturation of colors in a modern updating of handtinting. Pandian presents the engagement with color but not what its consequences might be or the admixture of pleasure and shame that might attend to it.
We can gain a sense of what the stakes are in Kajri Jain’s (2007) wonderful study of the contemporary Indian calendar art (chromolithograph) industry, which provided many of the templates of iconography and color upon which Tamil cinema is based. Jain shows that for artists and printers within the industry, color is deeply metareflexive in that all realize its importance, particularly in south India, but many feel deep ambivalence about this. The entire industry in the south is set up to mix mechanical and hand production techniques to create deep saturation but this effect is used to rank, hierarchize, and divide people. Unlike south Indians, Jain tells us Bengalis favor softer more “refined” colors, the north and west of India prefer lighter colors, and it is “the most intense and contrasting color schemes [that] are used in calendars intended for the south.” The artists themselves refer to these “cheap,” “shouting,” “gaudy” colors (2007: 178), used to attract a distracted gaze, pulling it to the deities image, appealing to emotion and sensation. As is familiar in discussions of the mass, these artists felt confined by having to depict colors in this way, seeing oversaturation as “inferior.” In their own private art, Jain tells us, they used a “muted,” more “realistic” palette identifying “softer” colors as more artistic (2007: 186).
While he does not directly address this, Pandian’s filmmakers seem similar to Jain’s artists, always hinting at the bonds of massness, suggesting that they are beyond it (even if the rest of the industry is in its thrall). One enfant terrible director decorates his office with images of auteur directors. He forces Pandian to consume a reading list of ten books (including Ibsen, Garcia Marquez, and Hesse) before he will meet with him. He parades his familiarity with Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Strauss. Meanwhile, an art director laments the “crap” that they are making in the industry. A special effects wizard decorates his house with reproductions of Picasso and Matisse, while another effects manager laments, “We haven’t done any innovative work in India. Zero” (241).
These comments point to the sense that color in Tamil film is not a neutral space. When one filters a light to produce a green glow, edits a scene to saturate the colors, or watches that scene unfold and feels the play of light upon the eye, one engages with a tactile world that has already been marked and that marking is brought to bear in uneven ways. When Pandian describes Tamil film as unfolding “as though it is happening within one of the vivid chromolithographic prints of goddesses,” it means that this entire history, with its admixtures of racism, class, aesthetics, excessiveness, inferiority, fantasy, and condescension, is brought along with it. Tejaswini Ganti (2010) argues that Hindi filmmakers deride their southern Indian counterparts as making garish, excessive films whose colors are too intense and acting too histrionic. They show tremendous disdain toward their counterparts—a disdain one suspects is felt hard by those subject to it. Just as Jain’s calendar artists are well aware their work is deemed as inferior “within the vast and formidable panopoly of ‘Indian culture’” (2007:176) it seems that this metareflexive sensibility haunts the edges of Pandian’s text.
Color is thus both affectual and historical. It lies beyond a realm of meaning and is thoroughly immanent to that realm. That Pandian is aware of this haunts the book, and leads to his desire to write a text that pushes beyond the human and his constant stumbling back into it. The opening section of the color chapter cites Goethe’s famous argument that only savages and the uneducated have a predilection for bright colors. People of refinement (and Bengalis, evidently) are free from this “kind of sickness.” Citing such a powerful quote at the beginning of the chapter creates a frame, a set of emotional reactions suffusing our reading of the colors that we are to read about after. Pandian raises these historical stakes, but then does not follow through with them. What Goethe means for those editors, set directors, and directors of photography we do not know. Color as meaning is raised, but color as affect follows on.
My question is whether this history, which soaks into cinema and weighs down its use of color, its shot selection, and its tempo and rhythm, influences its sensation-creating abilities. Or, more properly, why do we have to create an account of cinema that does not allow us to discuss it? One can imagine at times the technical and artistic personnel may simply craft their film in relation to the demands of the market without having any metareflexive sensibility brought to bear. But at other times those self-same actions become marked, either defensively protected against accusations of inferiority or bitterly criticized for forcing a commercial imperative on artists with larger ambitions. As Pandian notes, this is particularly fraught in modernizing societies where artists often labor under the accusation that they are not modern enough, that they have to ‘catch up’ with a more proper art that exists somewhere else (74). Knowing this history can help us return to the phenomenological scenes described by Pandian and rethink how it is that the sensate experience of film unfolds. When the director Gayathri demands that a scene have a specific color tone, or when Nirav, the director of photography, instructs the colorist to “enrich the saturation of reds and yellows” (129) these commitments to intensity and excess become more complex, striated with competing meanings and feelings. What might it mean to stand in a film set bathed in green light, or to watch a film suffused with eerie reds and lurid greens when those colors and their intensity have come to metareflexively define a particular taste, aesthetic, region, and temporality? How does it help account for the peculiar admixture of attraction and repulsion that colors invoke? “When color shouts,” Kajri Jain asks, “what does it say?”
Bailkin, J. 2014. “Indian Yellow: Making and Breaking the Imperial Palette.” In Martin Jay and Sumathi Ramaswamy eds., Empires of Vision: A Reader, 91-110. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Eaton, N. 2012. Nomadism of Colour: Painting, Technology and waste in the Chromo-Zones of Colonial India c.1765-c1860. Journal of Material Culture 17(1): 61-81.
Ganti, T. 2012. Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press.
Jain, K. 2007. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press.
Pinney, C. 2004. ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. London: Reaktion Books.
Rao, A. 1992. The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taussig, M. 2009. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Brian Larkin writes on issues such as the materiality of media and their breakdown and failure, piracy and intellectual property, infrastructure, religious mediation, and the circulation of cultural forms. His research focuses on Nigeria and he is completing the manuscript, Secular Machines: Media and the Materiality of Islamic Revival in Nigeria.