Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

Ritesh Mehta, a recently minted Annenberg School PHD (My advisee) and a regular contributor to Movie Maker Magazine, pitched me recently about doing an interview for the blog with Anand Pandian, the author of  Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, a work which Mehta feels represents a bold new experiment in academic writing and a ground breaking contribution to production studies. How could I refuse? Mehta’s conversations with Pandian runs over the next two installments. You can read Mehta’s review of the book here.

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

By Ritesh Mehta

The first thing you stop at when you leaf through Anand Pandian’s book Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation—other than its Foreword by the great American editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who finds another avatar of his filmmaking mantra of “closed openness” (p. x) in Pandian’s field sites in and around “Kollywood,” “the studios and byways of the Kodambakkam area of western Chennai” (but also on location in Switzerland and Dubai)—is its table of contents.


You glimpse and take in the chapter titles, “Desire” and “Fate,” “Light” and “Color,” “Pleasure” and “Wonder,” among others. You begin to hope that this ethnographic work on the production cultures of Tamil cinema is going to prove quite different from other ethnographies not just of Indian cinema and television but of various global media industries. You begin to entertain the notion of ethnographers and anthropologists being philosophers and novelists. You begin to think about how phenomenology works alongside ethnography both in the field as well as while writing. And you begin to wonder whether the experiences and utterances—discourse and practice—of Pandian’s subjects represent agency or forebode circumscription, or some glorious or god awful interpenetration of the two.


One of his most fascinating informants is Logandurai, whom the book opens with. A farmer who sings fragments of a song from a popular Tamil film even as he toils in an orchard far away from the rush of Chennai. Pandian juxtaposes the meanings of the lyrics in Logandurai’s imaginary with the humble material conditions of his life. In doing so, he sets the premise of his work in his general observation that “cinema here [in Tamil Nadu] bends itself towards ordinary life, while ordinary life hankers after cinema.” Thus begins his series of “experiments in cinematic experience: trials undertaken by certain Indian filmmakers and also by an anthropologist wandering and writing in their midst.” (pp. 10-17) I won’t elaborate further and instead will let our conversation attempt to grasp at Pandian’s own grasping of the unfurling entanglements between cinema and life.


Ritesh Mehta: Since we are approaching this exchange as a conversation rather than an interview, allow me to first gush just for a bit. I’ve been obsessed with this book the past couple of weeks. I read just a bit and have to set it aside, since it just fills me in the way movies fill me: I am in the mindspace of evocation and signification. In fact, I found it challenging to come up with a set of prompts because I’ve wanted to linger in the book’s lifeworld without further interpreting, critiquing or even reflecting on it. Thank you for allowing us to linger. In our conversation, though, I’d love to hear your responses to my proto-responses, so if anything, you can help me and our readers arrive at a sense of the incredible, unique work this book is doing.

For me, the book has been about “imponderabilia” and “heteroglossia,” and I don’t readily name drop Malinowski and Bakhtin. I see in your pages the inscription of the wagging of tongues of a smorgasbord of cinema creators, producers and workers, as well as your sieving through and shifting among and alongside their minds and bodies. So the book is as much about immateriality as it is about variegated materiality with regard to creating cinema. As I continue reading through your “experimental vignettes,” I get the sense that you have synchronized an anthropological orchestration for your big themes, which I think are Continuity versus Flux on the one hand, and Possibility versus Embeddedness on the other. I found these themes, these contradictory modes of living, to be getting work done for your cinema makers because they are in fact such heady and rooted contrasts. My immediate thought was: that’s India.

I love the ways in which you’ve wondered about this as well. How a screenplay that begins in Dreams (Chapter 2), themselves fluctuating but effervescing ultimately into a narrative with continuity, can end up completely at the mercy of Fate (Chapter 18), of a box office opening that might have seemed throughout the filmmaking process as full of profitable and pop cultural possibility but is ultimately embedded in the lifeworld of a myriad of throaty thrushes in theaters: Tamil audiences and their sansaara. You return your observations about Tamil film production to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction that is known from within life itself.


Going back to the table of contents, you’ve described what Rhythm, Voice, Space, and Art mean in different and useful ways throughout the book. For instance, you refer to them as “modes of experience” as well as the “formal properties of cinema.” But it strikes me they’re also what philosophers and metaphysicians call universals: mind-independent entities that are available for all of us to partake in, which make human beings similar if not identical to one another. The prospect of wrestling with universals in an ethnographic work about a regional cinema—a cinema you call “marginal” even—I find incredibly exciting. Thinking back to The English Patient, a film that not so coincidentally <strong>Walter Murch edited, what inspired me the most about the movie when I saw it two decades ago, was its depiction of the desert. Even though it was about a very particular desert—the one in 1942 Libya—it evoked the idea of being a desert in general, everywhere: the quality of being vast, the property of being without maps, the disposition of being wind. In the novel and later in the film, the desert was evoked as a universal that I could partake in. In your book, the particularly rhythms, voices, speed, and fate of Tamil film producers are evoked as universals that they partake in.

So thank you, once again for this work and for listening to me wax ineloquently.

My initial questions are what I think the book does not seem to be about, concepts that I would have expected but did not find–in a good way. I wanted to point these out and get your reactions.

I was provoked by one of your opening questions in the book: “What happens when everything begins to look like film?” Or when everything starts to look like a “cinematic scene.” On the flip side, I like how you point out that “cinema draws its force from the affective lives of its makers” and you quote Coomaraswamy in saying that “craftsmanship is a mode of thought.” One of the reasons I am running this on Henry Jenkins’ blog is because one of the first classes with Henry at USC was on medium specificity. Because of the way you describe the connections and interpenetration between cinema and life, would you say that your book bypasses the debate on medium specificity? Is your book about the medium neutrality of cinema? Or do you treat cinema as a medium in the way media scholars do?


Anand Pandian: There are certainly many moments in the book when I treat cinema as a medium in the way that cinema scholars do, because in part what I’m doing is thinking through these moments in Tamil cinema in relation to what media scholars have said. For example, if you think of Baudry’s ideas around the apparatus theory, or you think of Mulvey’s questions around the phallocentrism of cinema… there are many arguments that have been made with regard to this particular medium—cinema—that I found useful to think with, with regard to both the films that these filmmakers were making, and the way in which they were making them and how they were thinking about them. So on one level, certainly the endeavor here is to think with film studies and to ask the question, What can an anthropologist, approaching this thing we call “cinema” as an ethnographer, from the standpoint of an ongoing emergent production practice, tell us with regard to these essential questions around the ontology of the cinematic image; the relationship between image and spectator; the ways in which cinema can be understood to carry ideologies in its body, in its materiality; the relationship between thinking and feeling when it comes to spectation? There are any number of questions that scholars have posed with regard to the medium in particular that I try to reach as an ethnographer.


But having thought through that and having wrestled with those problems, what I kept finding time and again is that the questions that kept emerging in those production contexts seemed to blur the distinction between cinema and other kinds of things: the divide between cinema and other kinds of arts (painting, sculpture, or visual effects work in a digital setting, or the composition of music or dance), the distinction between cinema as a medium and these other media that we think of as contrary media of expression, that distinction begins to break down. But even more than that, because what one is dealing with when one is looking at the making of film are people who are positioned in a world that includes the film but exceeds the film, the world that contains that world in a sense, but is obviously much bigger, because that is a frame that is on a location or a studio somewhere, that is surrounded by ever so many other things, the more basic distinction between art and life, between creative endeavors and ordinary endeavors, itself began to break down… such that what I began to arrive at was a sense of the creative process that might even encompass the cinema, that might even assume particular forms in regard to the making of film, but certainly had resonances and relationships far beyond that particular domain.


RM: That’s why I think your approach refreshingly bypasses the debates that have happened on medium specificity. It seems as though you do address them but also step out, show the larger picture and how the distinctions that you mention above blur. You have a different way of talking about light, color and sound than some of the proponents of medium specificity.


AP: If I could also add one thing, this has also to do with the way I came into cinema. I didn’t write this book because I have had a lifelong fascination or even love for cinema in particular. It’s that I was deeply involved in the ordinary life of rural people in South India over the course of a few years for my dissertation research and turning that research into a book. I found that I couldn’t think about that life except in relation to these bits and pieces of cinema that were slipping into it constantly. My entry into cinema as an object of investigation was through these fragments that permeated ordinary life in India, that were of a piece with ordinary life. What is the medium then? The medium there was the countryside, and cinema was just one means by which that medium found a certain kind of expression.


RM: That makes complete sense to me. Growing up in Mumbai, I had a similar sense of how for many people for whom cinema may not be an important part of their everyday experience, it’s impossible not to engage with the fragments. You’re constantly surrounded by these fragments: they are hurtling at you when you live in a city like Mumbai. So I imagine it’s similar in many parts of Tamil Nadu as well.


You brought up the word “ordinary”— on page 2, you talk about cinema being “ordinary.” This reminded me of one of my favorite articles that I read as a PhD student: Raymond Williams’ 1958 piece, “Culture is Ordinary.” The first four paragraphs remind me of your writing. He describes a bus ride from an urban area to an industrialized countryside where he grew up. He talks about how the countryside changes as he goes higher and higher into the mountains, and about culture is woven into the landscape and the meanings into the land. It’s in a way a Marxist exploration without being Marxist upfront. His thesis is that “culture is ordinary” in that it is about a whole way of life. It represents old meanings that we are born into and use as well as the new meanings that we express. But what interested me was that I didn’t find too much direct talk about the word “culture” in your book. Many readers who know that you’re an anthropologist might find that intriguing. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Is this a valid observation?


AP: It’s a very interesting question. One of my favorite books by Raymond Williams is “The Country and The City,” which in some ways is an account of the changing relationship between culture and cultivation in British literature that is an investigation of the image of the British countryside, and in particular of the agrarian countryside as it comes in and out of focus as a site of desirable life over the course of a lengthy period of time in English literature. Williams is quite helpful in thinking through the materiality of something like culture, of reminding us that culture is a mode of practice, that it involves not only the ascription of certain ideals and attention to certain kind of symbols, but the way in which those ideals, symbols, those venerated qualities, are tied into concrete ways of living in, engaging and working to transform the world that one finds oneself in, which is his materialism, as an analyst, as a thinker.


So, certainly, yes, “culture” as an object of analysis may not be explicitly present in this book. But I would say that there is no question that the practices of certain kinds of filmmakers are essential here: what holds together the way in which an editor thinks and works with cinematic material as opposed to the way a camera man thinks and works with cinematic material, as opposed to the way a musician or composer thinks and works with cinematic material. Those differences are essential to the way the book is organized, the way it’s written.


And there is, in a way, an argument the book is making that we cannot make sense of the ways in which these different elements of cinema work on us if we don’t adequately understand the way they are put to work through the practical engagements of these different technicians. Perhaps not culture then in the sense of “high culture,” culture in the sense of “ideology,” but perhaps culture in the sense of poesis, of a practical work of creative activity, is essential to the way the book is organized.


RM: Right. My point in bringing up these two questions is simply to say that in a way it’s liberating to not use those words. Because people who have written a lot about “culture” and who have certain understandings about culture, or medium specificity for that matter, if they see those same terms in the book, that might imply a different way to process the book as opposed to when you talk about them indirectly and not label them as such. I think that’s useful and productive.


AP: This is the reason why the book is organized the way that it is, the reason why it has these rather abstract elements—like desire or light or sound—as organizing rubrics rather than the studio floor, or the recording booth… Obviously, the table of contents could be much more concrete than it is. It’s because as an anthropologist, I have come to recognize and try to acknowledge the value of thinking with the concepts that come out of the experience of others. That is to say, rather than trying to apply my own concepts, or concepts that I am attached to as an analyst to these different situations, I try to allow my own thinking to bend itself to the ideas and concepts of the people that I encounter, those that the ethnographic experience seems to be organized around.


So when one is working with, say, a camera man, you can make sense of his or her experience in really any way you want. We have all kinds of tools at our disposal to say what it is they are doing. But the interpretive effort with this book was to think as closely to the grain of their own thinking as it is embedded in the way in which they work with this material, whether it’s light or sound or color or time, and to see how far one could run with these thoughts that emerge from a practical milieu.


RM: I’m writing this post for Henry Jenkins’ blog, and Henry is your premier fan studies scholar. Let me read to you a paragraph from one of his chapters currently under review, and I’d like to get your reaction in relation to your chapter on Imagination, where you talked a bit about Tamil cinema fans.

“I’ve long argued that fan cultural production was born from a mixture of fascination and frustration. Fans engage closely with texts because they are fascinated. They continue to rework them because they are frustrated with some aspect of the original. Yes, fans poach. They take what they want from texts they did not create. And fans resist. They often rewrite stories so that things come out differently. But fans also engage with the text on terms not of their own choosing, so that the process looks very much like what cultural studies calls “negotiation.” (Jenkins, forthcoming)

I was wondering about your understanding of how Tamil fans negotiate based on Henry’s description, and how does that connects to your idea of “imagination” as a phenomenon.


AP: I appreciate the attention to openness and indeterminacy in what you read and in Henry’s thinking. I might still ask the question, “Fans of what?” What if we were to set aside the assumption that a film is first and foremost a text and instead ask the question, “What form or what body does the film assume or in what form or body does the film become most significant for its fans?” Here, the body of the hero becomes essential. Because in Tamil cinema, you have fans, you have cinephiles who are fans of particular actors and directors or even editors for that matter. You have technicians who have their own legion of fans. But the way in which those technicians are venerated is almost a reflex of how those heroes are venerated.


So the question of fandom brings us back most centrally to the hero’s body and how that body is conceived. The thing that is important to keep in mind here is that body is both this-worldly and other-worldly. It taps and channels energies and forces of devotion and attachment that aren’t entirely secular, that partake of the divine, that bring practices and rituals of worship and veneration into play, that occasion modes of engagement that may be more about devotion than about negotiation. That is to say, less about carving out a space for myself than about submitting myself to a force that is bigger than me. Power assumes different forms and faces in different contexts. Certainly one way to understand fan clubs as they operate in India is as domains of politics and political engagement, and there are ways in which these clubs devoted to one star as opposed to another star operate and allow for the expression of the political ambitions of those who run them. I did meet quite a lot of fans as well and I talk about them in that chapter. But I think to reduce these clubs to that kind of politics is to rob their experience of its essential texture. Because their mode of engagement is, in fact, religious.


RM: One of the core themes across Henry’s work, not just in fan studies but also in media literacy, in industry studies, is “remixing.” Henry has found a plethora of examples of remixing and appropriation practices by fans. Is that quite different from devotion?


AP: That’s a fascinating question, actually. Because as we know, the body of the god in Indian Hinduism is not a unitary body, and there are ever so many ways in which that body travels: it moves through the space of the city; it possesses people. There are ever so many ways in which one can participate in divinity. Now, we could call that remixing. It’s interesting. To call that remixing, for me, lends a little too much value or attention to the cleverness of the remixer. If you look at these videos on YouTube, you’ll see these videos of people acting out these scenes in films of their favorite actors—I’m not sure if the idea of remixing captures enough that sense of fidelity, of participating through a certain kind of corporeal practice in the power and aura of this other being.

From the online companion Chapter on Imagination — Fan reception at a film release

Imagination2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Art – an action sequence

Art2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.