Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Aparna Sharma reviews Reel World

Anand Pandian. Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Durham, N.C., 2015. 360 pp.

Review by Aparna Sharma

Students and scholars of cinema will find Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation an engaging text that introduces the reader to the film industry of a distinct cultural landscape in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Reel World is based on field-based research into the film production systems of the Tamil film industry. Anand Pandian offers a variegated view of the disparate facets of film production, following makers and artists through serpentine journeys spanning script-pitching sessions, location filming, postproduction, and onto the first screenings of released films. Pandian divides the book into short chapters that take up specific themes and areas of filmmaking. The early chapters focus on such topics as cinema as a site of dreams, desires, and hopes; the later chapters take up specific elements of cinema including light, color, rhythm, voice, and speed. This is an interesting approach, as it widens our understanding of commercial film production, pushing the study of cinema beyond the confines of such categories as narrative, storytelling, and entertainment. Each chapter is made up of sections based on the author’s field notes that make up a potentially rich mode of experimental ethnographic writing: descriptions of processes of making emplace the reader in the world of filmmaking. The book is infused with the author’s sense of fascination with cinema and, while this is palpable, his enthusiasm on occasions often limits rather than supports his thick description of filmmaking as a process of creation.

This is particularly a problem when the author shies away from working with field notes. In these places, the reader is offered textured stagings of scenes surrounding film production. But after such description the author offers little by way of explaining the political economy of the proceedings.  What, the reader may ask, are the forces, other than the strokes of individual genius or the coming together of the like-minded, that may intersect to shape the process of creation? Researching any film industry necessitates questioning how industrial conventions are shaped, especially how cultural systems of knowledge and meaning making intersect with a medium such as cinema and its industrial formation in relation to disparate economies of scale. In concentrating his research principally on artists, producers, and specialists associated with films, Pandian misses a great opportunity to reflect on how industrial production is a process through which creative possibilities are closely choreographed and brought into alignment with technical skills and film production. My concerns here are less in the vein of criticism and more in the spirit of calling for a more rigorous interrogation and elaboration of the context and methods of production under examination. The author’s inadequacy in critically addressing the minutiae of industrial production is reflective of a wider bent in film studies where the pervasiveness of the industrial model precludes understanding the channels and mechanisms of production within this mode, as well as questioning how this mode, dominant as it is, sits in comparison with competing media and modes of creation such as art, regional, or documentary cinema, among others. While Pandian makes relevant references to Tamil politics and cultural life, and the attempt at experimental ethnographic writing is filled with rich potentialities, he would benefit from more critical distance from the field so as to devise a more independent form of analysis.