Reel World

An Anthropology of Creation

Reel World

Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 51 illustrations, incl. 1 in c Published: November 2015

Author: Anand Pandian

Contributor: Walter Murch

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Media Studies > Film

Reel World explores what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like cinema. Drawing on years of fieldwork with Tamil filmmakers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen in the south Indian movie studios of "Kollywood," Anand Pandian examines how ordinary moments become elements of a cinematic world. With inventive, experimental, and sometimes comical zeal, Pandian pursues the sensory richness of cinematic experience and the adventure of a writing true to these sensations. Thinking with the visceral power of sound and image, his stories also broach deeply philosophical themes such as desire, time, wonder, and imagination. In a spirit devoted to the turbulence and uncertainty of genesis, Reel World brings into focus an ecology of creative process: the many forces, feelings, beings, and things that infuse human endeavors with transformative potential.


"Decoding the phantasmagoria on-screen while navigating the labyrinthine networks of India’s Tamil cinema calls for inspired writing. Thankfully, the cicerone who takes us through these oneiric protean worlds can reconcile the recondite with the banal, the sublime with the quotidian, and the real with the mythological… The taut prose, the espial documentation, and cogitations make Reel World a work of superfluous quality.” — Kumuthan Maderya, PopMatters

"Pandian delivers an adventurous and boldly written pursuit of how ideas become the sights, sounds, stories, emotions, and realities that flicker onscreen in a movie.”  — Bret McCabe, Johns Hopkins Magazine

"In this book, which follows the various paths through which Tamil films are made, another kind of dream emerges—one that allows us to re-envision the anthropological (by which I mean the human) project as one concerned with learning to open oneself to the wild world beyond what we think we can control.”  — Eduardo Kohn, Somatosphere

"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.”   — Stephanie Spray, Somatosphere

"Pandian’s richly detailed, exquisite set of ethnographic vignettes of Tamil filmmakers, linked together by a chain of experiential concepts such as time, space, hope, and dream, set out a number of claims about the nature of experience and creation." — Stephen Chrisomalis, Somatosphere

"Reel World asks if cinema can tell us about something like 'life.' For me, the book has convincingly made the case that it can, even if what it tells us does not in any way resolve itself as a singular 'answer.' ... Reel World indeed makes its mark. It makes its mark on our understanding of Tamil cinema, on our ability to grasp the resonances between these films and ordinary life in South India, and on our feel for the reverberations across contemporary life that cinema itself broadly generates."  — Richard Baxstrom, Somatosphere

"A fascinating peep into the Tamil film industry." — Sushila Ravindranath, The Hindu

"[A]  delightful combination of thought and description is a unique ethnographic account that is both autobiographical and participant-observational. ... In this book, we are made privy to this enigmatic and elusive interface between the creator and the nothingness that confronts him/her in the act of creation."   — C.S. Venkiteswaran, Frontline

"Reel World is probably unlike any book on cinema production you have read. It takes seriously the felt reality of the myriad of writers, directors, producers, assistants, art directors, painters, ADR artists, lyricists—name the craftsperson—that collectively bring to the screen 800 or so films annually out of 'Kollywood.' . . . The book sifts expertly and enigmatically across all three levels: daily life, cinematic life and life in the universal. Reel World is actually Pandian’s anthropological paean to creation." — Ritesh Mehta, MovieMaker

"Pandian interweaves the insights of an exceptional variety of thinkers, from medieval Indian poets, European philosophers, and anthropologists to South Asianists, film scholars, and critics.... [O]ne of the book’s delights remains the frolic across time, genre, discipline, field, and emotions that these many references gather and synthesize." — Sara Dickey, American Ethnologist

"[A]n engaging text that introduces the reader to the film industry of a distinct cultural landscape in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu." — Aparna Sharma, Critical Inquiry

"[A] significant contribution towards the on-going debates in South Asian film studies." — Venkatesh Chakravarthy, Pacific Affairs

“With the ethnography of feature filmmaking so new and comparatively rare, one can safely say that readers will find this a fresh and invigorating take within cinema studies literature.” — Clare M. Wilkinson, Bioscope

"Of the many unique things about Reel World, the most ambitious is Pandian’s attempt to capture this moment of creation, in writing, composing, directing: the moment that the spark of inspiration connects the individual artist to the numinous forces around him."  — Walter Murch, from the foreword

"Reel World thinks in and through the media of cinema and experience as things of the world. They are like fireflies whose paths flash and cut out. A chance encounter, a glance, or a gesture activates experiments in rhythm and voice, light and sound, a feeling of movement. Streets, migrants, flowers, bullets, children’s textbooks, and bottlefuls of pills form ecologies of incipience. Ontological curiosity laps like an infinity wave in the craving for wonders now."  — Kathleen Stewart, author of Ordinary Affects

"An original, thoughtful, and daring anthropologist, Anand Pandian has written a book ostensibly about the fierce intensities of Tamil cinema and the great cultural themes that pervade it:  hope, color, space, love, desire, light, dream, time. It might, however, be more apt to describe this work as a rich, experimental meditation about the elusive momentum of creativity, the shift in perception when something unexpected happens. This meditation is set in the Tamil country, mainly in its cinema capital, Chennai, whose streets, tea stalls, beaches and offices are beautifully evoked. It is often difficult to decide if the emerging text is driven more by the inner landscapes of Tamil villagers (such as those discussed in Pandian’s superb first book, Crooked Stalks), or by resonant voices from the modernist canon (Bohumil Hrabal, Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Lefebvre, Joyce, Deleuze). The lyrical interweaving of these worlds along with lively vignettes of many of the great names of south Indian cinema as they struggle to define themselves and their work offer us a context-sensitive understanding of ‘cinema as a medium of thought, a way of thinking with the visceral force of moving images.’” — David Shulman, author of More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India

"Anand Pandian is a gifted writer. And the sounds, spaces, rhythms, and colors that these creative directors draw together provide rich tapestries. The result is a spiritual work that illuminates life today." 
— William E. Connolly, author of A World of Becoming

"Tamil cinema, in many ways, is its own little universe, and it's time someone explored it in the manner of an anthropologist investigating a remote culture. Anand Pandian is, in fact, an anthropologist, and his flavorful, seamlessly narrated book is a fascinating dig into Tamil cinema, its codes, its symbols, how it is made, how it is received."

— Baradwaj Rangan, author of Conversations with Mani Ratnam

"Anthropology comes together with an intense cinephilia to explore the social circumstances of unstable creativity in Anand Pandian's remarkable book on recent Tamil cinema. He 'shadows’ filmmakers, writers, producers, actors, technicians and sundry characters from its movie industry, and with them tracks a creativity that is between conscious thought and unconscious impulse, between a utopian promise and dangerous lived reality. Never have the ramifications of the cinematic conscious been explored before in India in this way."

— Ashish Rajadhyaksha, author of Indian Cinema in the Times of Celluloid


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India, also published by Duke University Press.

Walter Murch is an Academy Award–winning film editor and sound designer, and the author of In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Walter Murch  ix
Note to the Reader, also a Listener and Seer  xvii
1. Reel World  1
2. Dreams  21
3. Hope  37
4. Space  53
5. Art  69
6. Love  85
7. Desire  99
8. Light  107
9. Color  121
10. Time  135
11. Imagination  151
12. Pleasure  167
13. Sound  181
14. Voice  199
15. Rhythm  205
16. Speed 219
17. Wonder  237
18. Fate  251
19. An Anthropology of Creation  267
Acknowledgments  285
Notes  289
Bibliography  313
Index  329
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc South Asia

Rights and licensing

Second Place, 2017 Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, presented by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology

Anand Pandian is the recipient of The Infosys Prize 2019 in Social Sciences

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