Anthropologist Anand Pandian goes behind the scenes of Tamil filmmaking


Credit: Anand Pandian

Anand Pandian, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, was sitting with a crew of young filmmakers as they bemoaned that perennial fate of young filmmakers: too many ideas, not enough money. It was 2009, and the film they were working on was being directed by Mysskin, an up-and-coming filmmaker who named himself after the prince in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. The director's first film had yet to be released, and he wouldn't get paid until it did. He barely had enough money to keep his new project going.

Image caption: Anand Pandian

"They were almost out of money, and there was this conversation about needing to get an office," Pandian, a youthful 40-year-old, recalls with a chuckle.

Pandian couldn't stay for the rest of the day. He had to get home to look after his 6-month-old son. His wife, Sanchita Balachandran, a lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and curator/conservator of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, had a Fulbright grant to study metals conservation in India, and they took turns watching over their son while the other worked. He left the crew to their work midday on a Saturday.

Pandian had traveled from Baltimore to India specifically to follow the making of Mysskin's film from beginning to end, and he was imagining that research being a key piece of his fieldwork for his latest book project. And though the film had barely gotten off the ground, Pandian felt a deep investment in the project as part of his ongoing research. Graduate school had taken Pandian to Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state from which his family hails, from 2000 to 2002. Prior to that, he had spent a post-undergraduate year doing volunteer environmental work in the region, studying rural agriculture and development. He considered continuing that research for his dissertation but found himself more drawn to studying agrarian life, trying to understand how people develop a sense of right and wrong with respect to each other and their natural environment.

Movies, he had noticed, permeated these relationships. "There were all these little things that underscored for me the inescapable importance of cinema," Pandian says. "You'd be hanging out with people at a stall, just having tea, and there'd be this endless chain of film songs that were playing and people would use them to make sense of an election or what happened last night or the way this boy ran off with that girl." Movie allusions—their characters, storylines, songs—were the currency of everyday life. Pandian wanted to know how movies did that, how they seeped into people's minds so much that they were part of how they understood the world. He figured watching how filmmakers work might provide some insight into that, which is what brought him back to India this time around.

Indian cinema is a mammoth industry largely ignored by American audiences and film journalists and scholars. In 2011 the Motion Picture Association of America, which provides ratings to movies for commercial release, rated 758 movies. That same year its Indian counterpart, the Central Board of Film Certification, certified ratings for 1,255 movies in nine languages, and Indian movies accounted for 90 percent of Indian ticket sales. Tamil cinema is a robust part of that industry—of those 1,255 movies, 185 were Tamil, the third highest after Hindi (206) and Telugu (192). Pandian was interested in a specific subset of Tamil films: the "cinema of the countryside," as he calls the genre, that emerged in the late 1970s. These movies had southern Indian villagers as protagonists and focused on the ordinary lives of middle-class or lower-middle-class people. Pandian wanted to know what went into creating these stories that people used to shape their lives.

When Pandian returned to the film crew after the weekend, Mysskin pulled him aside and confided, Something amazing had happened. On Sunday night, a very famous, very popular Tamil actor saw his unreleased movie and fell in love with it. He wanted to work with Mysskin—immediately. Mysskin found himself in the unbelievable position of being invited to work with a superstar, but it meant abandoning his current project. "At that point, I couldn't stay on," Pandian remembers. "I had a baby, I was an untenured professor, I can't jump ship to try to follow this other larger project. It just seemed impractical."

It threw his research a curveball. He ended up hooking up with a different film crew for a different project for a spell. Then another. Then another. "I decided to cobble together something, doing a little fieldwork here, a little fieldwork there," he says. In all, Pandian worked with 17 film projects at different production stages over six years.

This is not usually the way anthropologists conduct their fieldwork. Anthropologists typically conduct studies of a people, a place, a culture. The resulting ethnography is a narrative of a specific experience had by the fieldworker. In a 1998 New York Review of Books essay, anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously borrowed James Clifford's expression for the anthropological endeavor: deep hanging out.

"We conventionally think of fieldwork as an immersion into some other rhythm of life," Pandian explains. "At first you're unsettled, you don't know what's going on, you don't know the language, you don't know the people, you're at a loss. But then you slip in. People begin to say, 'Do this, sleep there.' And gradually you're in a rhythm; you become part of something, and in the end there's a tearful goodbye when you have to leave. And then that something becomes further and further away from you and you long for it and that mood—that you want to be there but you're not—infiltrates the writing. That [process] has something to do with the melancholy quality of a lot of anthropological writing."

Anybody who has ever spent time on a film set knows that filmmaking can run from chaotic to mind-numbingly boring, from waiting all day for something to happen to shooting for hours into the night. Its rhythms of life are dependent on too many different variables—clashing personalities, the availability of daylight—to become a regular pattern.

"What if [the fieldwork] doesn't have that consistency to begin with?" Pandian asks. "What if it's more radically open-ended than that? What if the people in it don't themselves know what tomorrow or the afternoon or the next hour may bring? I feel like I had to rethread the elements of my being to actually be able to move with things as these filmmakers were moving with them."

He's not being dramatic. His fieldwork experience affected him—not only because he needed to acclimate to filmmakers' arrhythmic lifestyles. It changed how he thought about experience itself, about how people navigate and understand the world. Like a novelist or painter finding his voice in his medium after a decade of working or a scientist whose experiments lead him to pursue something unexpected, the social scientist shapes and hones his ideas throughout his career. What he's learned in the classroom gets challenged, rethought, and reconsidered by what he learns in the field.

Pandian's fieldwork, and the book project it supported, brought him to that nexus with his own ideas—about what anthropology can do, about how ethnographies should be written, about what other cultures can teach us about how we create. What started as an effort to understand Tamil film grew into a multipart investigation of the filmmaking process that he hopes will shed light on human creativity.

Currently titled The Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, Pandian's book has become a meditation on what he calls life's "radical uncertainty," a slipperiness that he believes isn't unique to filmmaking. "How do you live with the not knowing of where a sound will take you?" Pandian asks. "How do you live with the not knowing where a rhythm as it changes over time will take you? I came to see that there is a way of living with not knowing what these filmmakers were actually doing."

If that sounds like an ambitious goal for a book, it is. Reel World is trying to do many things at once, and it's difficult to gauge just how successfully it does that after reading only a few of its episodic chapters. Pandian hopes to send the manuscript out to publishers in the spring for publication in the next two years.

In September, he was still fine-tuning chapters and organizing the entire book. Getting up from a chair in his office, Pandian walks over to the scanner by his desk while explaining that his final chapter discusses the role of point of view in how we understand the observable world. He opens the scanner and returns with a sheet of paper, placing it on the table in front of him. It's a very crude drawing: a series of boxy, triangular shapes that run around a rectangular in the middle of the page.

"I will begin the chapter with this picture that my son drew when he was 3 and a half," he says. He points to the series of triangular shapes. "I know this is how he draws ships, but this is not [a drawing of] six pirate ships. This is one pirate ship." He laughs. "When I look at this, I think of Muybridge," he continues, alluding to Eadweard Muybridge, the 19th-century British photographer who used a series of cameras to study human and animal locomotion. "I see frames. I see stop motion. Why is a 3-year-old doing this?"

For Pandian, that's a variation of the nature or nurture question: Do people create imagery that looks like movies because we live in a televisual era, or do movies look they way they do because that's how we process our sensory experiences? That's an epistemological question burdened with mystical overtones, a leitmotif that runs through Reel World. In the introduction, Pandian recounts a Tamil invocation he heard during his fieldwork at the start of a new film project (translation Pandian's):

O godscreen, who we call cinema!
We bow first to you!

Deifying movies and their celebrities isn't unique to Indian cinema, but when fans are "mad for film, as we would say in Tamil," Pandian says, it's a passion that approaches the religious. Pandian doesn't consider himself a member of any cinematic congregation, despite growing up close to America's dream factory, Hollywood. The son of an Indian cardiologist who came to work in the United States in the 1970s, Pandian was born in the U.S. but started elementary school in India. His family eventually returned to the States and settled in the Los Angeles area by the time Pandian was 7 years old. His first exposure to Indian cinema came via screenings put together by the expatriate community. A relative of his owned a theater in Madras—also known as Chennai, Tamil Nadu's capital—and during visits, Pandian and his family would be given special seats in the balcony. "And if we came late, after the film was over they would replay the beginning for us," Pandian says. "So there was a certain element of going to India being about seeing at least a film or two."

Pandian mentions his cursory early experiences with cinema to position himself as an anthropologist studying filmmakers, not a devout film scholar. Reel World isn't the typical scholarly film book—an examination of a director's oeuvre, a genre overview, a detailed study of a single film, a look at a cinematic generation, an overview of film theory, or a collection of criticism. In fact, Pandian doesn't particularly care for the movies he studied. "I can't stand them actually," he says. "They convey a certain kind of masculine aggression and violence that I find really troubling."

What initially sparked his interest in these films was observing how they became entangled in their audience's consciousness. He first noticed it during his dissertation fieldwork, and an anecdote from that time period opens Reel World. In 2001, Pandian had traveled to Cumbum Valley in Tamil Nadu, where the Piramalai Kallars people live. "Kallar" is the Tamil word for "thief" or "deceitful person," and the British government designated these people a "criminal tribe" from 1918 until a little before the 1947 independence. One morning, Pandian was walking through a field toward a farmer named Longandurai, who started singing while working in the field. The song he sang came from a Tamil movie released 14 years earlier, in which a woman farmer was engaged in a similar activity. Longandurai quoted the movie, equating his experience in the field with hers in the film, and how and why that happened has demanded Pandian's attention ever since.

Reel World began as a study of "the rise and fall of these representations of the countryside and whatever that might have done to the way people lived in such places," Pandian says. But his filmmaking fieldwork led him to see parallels between farmers' relationship with their work, farmland, and filmmakers' relationship with their work, which Pandian qualifies as the observable world.

In conversation, Pandian says the relationship a person and people have with the world at large is an idea that has popped up throughout his academic career, which actually started in environmental activism. He studied environmental sciences as an undergrad, earning a degree in political ecology and migrating to anthropology in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. He was dissatisfied with the way environmental studies frames and explores its issues.

"When we think about the problem of modernity and nature, I think one of the biggest difficulties that we have is finding a way beyond a mood of melancholy, this sense that what we needed was once there and is there no longer," Pandian says. "That mood pervades contemporary environmentalism. I have it. Anyone who has children, who cares about the world that they may inherit from us, has it. It's very difficult to shake.

"But I think that melancholy isn't enough to go on," he continues. "We can't live in the world if our living in the world amounts to nothing more than a kind of hanging on to what it might have been like before we got here. And yet, that is all that environmentalism is giving us."

Pandian turned to anthropology to understand other ways of framing the relationship between people and the world. In the Cumbum Valley among the Piramalai Kallars, he encountered "circumstances in which the cultivation of the soil may be taken to sustain a cultivated life," as he writes in his first book, Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India. Here was a place where Pandian observed people who didn't see the natural world through this melancholic lens. Instead, "cultivation" became to Pandian a metaphor for a twofold enterprise: work that improves the self and the land. "We may be accustomed to thinking of the countryside as the signature realm of backwardness and inertia, as an idle space that can and must be overcome by forces of transformation always assumed to arrive from somewhere else," Pandian writes in Stalks. He found, however, that "the rural citizen confronts the present as heir to an agrarian tradition of moral cultivation—as a subject of ongoing development rather than an antagonist to change."

With Stalks, published in 2009, Pandian produced a slightly unconventional ethnography. Yes, it is a detailed account of one population, the Piramalai Kallars, and places them in a historical framework of southern India, but it is also deeply concerned with what it means to be a good person—both to the Piramalai Kallars and in general. It's an academic text written with a novelist's attention to narrative, and in it, Pandian doesn't offer instructions on how to lead a good life as much as encourage the reader to wonder how his or her own moral sense came about.

Among the Piramalai Kallars in southern India, Pandian encountered people who create a moral code through a cultivation metaphor: The sense of self is tied up in the land. Among the filmmakers, Pandian encountered people who create a cinematic world through a collage of tangible and intangible things—sounds and images, yes, but arranged to trigger emotions such as fear, love, sadness, joy. These emotions aren't exclusive to cinema; they're the grist of ordinary life. As he acknowledges in Reel World's introduction, what struck him about Longandurai singing was how seamlessly a cinematic allusion slipped into reality for the farmer. The thought caused him to recall how, growing up in LA in the early 1980s, he feared the bathroom faucet would spew blood—an image implanted in his mind by a Tamil film his parents took him to. What's going on, he writes, "when the world begins to look and feel like film"? Cinema takes reality and recasts it into a representation. But it can also provide insight into daily experiences. How it does that is what Reel World pursues, and in doing so Pandian believes he's gaining some insight into understanding how what we do influences how we think.

On the last Tuesday afternoon in September, Pandian reads a chapter from Reel World as part of the Anthropology Department's fall 2013 colloquium. He sits at the head of a seminar table surrounded by his anthropology peers and members of other departments, while undergraduate and graduate students fill the chairs around the room's perimeter. The chapter Pandian reads, titled "Desire," describes his fieldwork on a movie set during the shooting of a love scene.

It very quickly becomes clear that this isn't going to be a conventional lecture. He reads with a breathless urgency, his words coming in nonstop waves. He describes how the director, Selvaraghavan, creates this scene involving actress Andrea Jeremiah and actor Dhanush, the director's brother. He talks about how between takes, the actress reads from a Fran├žois Truffaut book. He senses a degree of tension on the set that seems to have nothing to do with the movie. He says a cab driver tells him that the actress was rumored to be the cause of the director's divorce. As he talks, his language becomes both more academic and more casual: He quotes French thinker Gilles Deluze; he refers to Selvaraghavan with the diminutive Selva.

It's a disorienting and expressionistic reading. Pandian wrote the chapter as a single sentence—the version he read at the colloquium contained 3,163 words. Ethnographic data isn't usually presented with such panache, and academic colloquia don't usually feel like a movie pitch. But Pandian believes that ethnographic writing should take on different forms if the material demands it.

For each chapter in Reel World, Pandian has written in a different style that explores an aspect of filmmaking—not the divisions of labor (acting, directing, editing, cinematography, etc.) but the more abstract, elemental components the filmmaking process brings together to create its onscreen world. His outline for Reel World contains 19 chapters with titles like "Space," "Love," "Desire," "Time," and "Sound." The "Desire" chapter is written in the frenetic run-on, trying to tap into the impudent urges that charge that emotion. The "Sound" chapter includes text treatments that suggest musical rhythms and tempos, evoking the fugitive process of composers arranging notes and noises into a sequence that, when paired to images, so effortlessly produce an emotional response.

It's an admittedly literary approach to writing, but for Pandian it's not simply for the sake of creating artful prose. He's trying to capture the moments of creation he observed, which didn't feel like inspired moments originating from inside the artists' minds but rather the artists acknowledging something already present. For the "Sound" chapter, for instance, Pandian spent time with a composer who was scoring a movie, a process he describes as an attempt to create the sound that he hears in his head. It's a lurching process, Pandian in a studio as the composer tries out ideas, rhythms, an electric guitar part here, a keyboard there, listening to the lyrics, trying to divine what sounds are going to work. A chosen bass line feels off. Some speakers need to be fixed. And then, Pandian writes, the song comes together in a 24-hour period. Pandian points out to the composer that he never talks about the song in terms of "I created this." He says, "I got it," as if he's catching something that's already there.

"It just came to me," the composer tells Pandian in Reel World. "I'm sort of a messenger. It just flows through me."

Pandian notes how frequently a variation of this expression came up with the filmmakers he followed, the idea of the creator merely being a vehicle to capture something already there. They talk about creating things not as a productive act but as harnessing something that already exists in the world.

That idea leads Pandian to think about what anthropological fieldwork can offer cognitive science. His fieldwork for Reel World "has led me to some basic questions about how we imagine the relationship between mind and world," he says. "I think, through this project, I've become attracted to a certain kind of hypothetical or even mythical possibility: What if we approached the world as if it were the case that our minds were already out there [in the world] rather than somewhere at a distance [residing solely in the brain]? How would it change our understanding of the world if we imagined and acted as though our minds were already part of it?"

What he's suggesting touches on some relatively recent theories in cognitive science. In Western philosophy, various theories of knowledge have been proposed from the Greeks through the Enlightenment, but they frequently rely on the supposition that the individual mind gains an understanding of the world through empirical processes: observations, perceptions, and sensations.

Since the middle of the 20th century cognitive scientists and psychologists have suggested more systems-based knowledge theories. "Some people speak of extended mind, some people speak of distributed cognition or embodied cognition," Pandian says of these theories. "There is this interest in, OK, don't reduce the mind to the brain. Think about the brain as networked in some larger experience.

"I feel like that is what happens when people make films," he continues. "The whole world is part of a process of turning light into film. The whole world is part of a process of releasing sound. So the mind is everywhere and nowhere at once. I think that's actually important. I think that's really interesting. And I think that, again, with these larger questions of how we make a home for ourselves in the mind, I think taking that seriously may be of consequence in the way that we perceive our ecological predicaments."

For Pandian, anthropology offers a way to understand how people are already doing that. "At some level, my first book was about what farmers do," he says. "This book is about what filmmakers do. I think I'm going to continue to work on what people do, not because I want to fetishize what people do or describe how amazing and inventive people are when they do what they do. [Studying] what people do gives us very practical access to what is done to them in the act of doing. Another way to say [that] is to say how they're transformed.

"I'm interested in those transformative possibilities. And I think—I really mean this—I think in the face of that overwhelming sense of melancholy and anxiety I spoke about, I think all we can do is pick up these transformative openings and see how far we can run with them."

At the close of his anthropology colloquium, Pandian referred to the Overture to French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss' The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume in a mammoth exploration about how myths create a home in the human mind. Change "myths" to "moving images" in passages of Levi-Strauss and the argument becomes similar to Pandian's: "I therefore claim to show not how men think in moving images, but how moving images operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact."

"The world that we encounter is already suffused with images of various kinds, and there are some very big questions about not only how we navigate such a world but how we grapple creatively with it," Pandian says. "Anthropologists ought to have something to say about that. I don't know to what extent this book could be taken to have something to say about that—I don't know if I've even said anything explicitly about that yet. But maybe, by the time the book is published, I will have."