Tamil cinema, imagination, the fans and how all of this blurs lines between fantasy and reality

Anand Pandian

July 24, 2016 15:27:03 IST

Editor's Note: The extraordinary commercial success that Rajinikanth’s Kabali has achieved in the first two days of its release offers evidence that the glory of a monarch is the sum total of his subjects. The might of the fan, numerical as well as devotional, especially one who inhabits theatres screening Tamil movies, is legion. Anand Pandian of Johns Hopkins University has examined this quality (and several other aspects of cinema) with great rigour. In this chapter from his book The Reel World: On Location in Kollywood, Pandian investigates how “fans imagine stars, how an action hero gets into his role and trains himself to do impossible things, and how all of this blurs the line between fantasy and reality”. This segment is based on Pandian’s anthropological work with another major star of Tamil cinema, Karthi Sivakumar, on a film shoot for Siruthai that came out a couple of years ago.

An excerpt from Reel World: On Location in Kollywood (Penguin, 2016)

Swetha first sees "Rocket" Raja when he bursts into a shopping mall crowd. There’s a man passed out on the floor among them. “Rocket landing!” Raja exclaims, and does something deftly with his fists to revive the man. They meet next at a lavish wedding at her uncle’s house, where he leaps to nab a running thief. She’s entranced. “That day in the mall when you saved him,” she says, “I saw Mother Teresa in your good deed. Today, when you caught this thief, I saw Netaji in your speed.” He beams proudly, speaks magnanimously. And then, as she looks admiringly at the hero, you can see for a few seconds how she imagines him: a towering figure with clasped arms and a modest smile, rising alone into the distant heights of a deep blue sky, his body bathed in a halo of green and white light. The vision leaves a glint in her eye, and she remains distracted by it. She comes back suddenly with a start, realizing that he’s been trying to get her attention. This is the least of what she misses in the film Siruthai (Leopard). He’s already declared in song that he is “really, really not a good boy.” He will steal her heart, among many other things.

Imagination is an alarmingly creative faculty. Imagination makes things appear—shadows of what was once before, impressions of things impossible or yet to be. These powers give reason to both veneration and suspicion. Are these images no more than illusory appearances, distractions from the reality of what is happening? The question poses itself especially forcefully when it comes to experiences like cinema, so clearly a departure from the space of the here and now. And the stakes grow even higher when we linger on industries like Tamil cinema, deeply invested in larger-than-life heroes whose outsized exploits fall utterly beyond the means of their adoring fans.

Take what happened when this Tamil film, Siruthai, was released in January 2011. Rocket Raja was one of two roles played in the film by Karthi Sivakumar, son of a venerable Tamil film actor and younger brother to one of the most popular stars in the industry. Though Siruthai was Karthi’s only fourth release, he already had a huge base of avid fans. In Chennai alone on its opening weekend, the film screened 339 times. “Housefull” boards were lit up almost everywhere. Loud drums, strings of firecrackers, and dancers in polyester tiger costumes greeted Karthi at some of these opening shows, his white Honda City with darkened windows slowly making its way through boisterous crowds of ebullient young men. He posed for a few photographs at each of the cinema halls, smiling graciously. It was the weekend of the Pongal festival, an avidly sought window for Tamil film releases. The annual festival celebrates fields and lives flowing over with health and vitality—pongal is literally that which overflows, as with the rice and cane sugar that bubble over the lips of cooking pots throughout the region. Around the theaters, other liquids were overflowing, as young men in red T-shirts—members of Karthi’s fan clubs—climbed the scaffolding behind lofty vinyl posters of the actor, spraying them with plastic packets of milk and fizzing bottles of beer. The ritual was borrowed, bent, from the world of the Hindu temple, an abhisheka or bathing of the cinematic deity in consecrating fluids. As M K B Santhosh, the young leader of a fan association later described to me, “Fifty or a hundred packets of milk, fifty beers . . . That whole road will run with milk and beer.” Santhosh took his initials from his father, a Chennai politician who vanished mysteriously a decade ago. His father helped pioneer the use of massive wooden cut-outs to venerate Tamil political leaders, and there was an unmistakable kinship between that public practice and the vinyl posters that his son now produced, some of which depicted Karthi in the manner of an erstwhile royal lord: bejeweled crown, proud sword, lavish garlands.

Santhosh wasn’t entirely sure why these images looked as they did. “We feel like doing it, we do it,” he said. But the flow of his devotion spilled even further. “Do you know what else I want to do? When his next film comes, I want to make sir come on a horse-drawn carriage and make a round of the theaters. I have that desire.”

Imagination is a movement of overflow, a crossing of boundaries, a spilling beyond oneself. To say that imagination works in this manner is to acknowledge its peculiar reality, its intangible depth beyond the sheen of appearances, its shadowy existence between presence and absence, there and here, oneself and another. What does it mean to dwell in this in-betweenness of imagination? What happens when a writer pens someone else into being? Or when an actor brings a character to life? Of all the roles to fill out a book on Tamil cinema, this one—the being of an actor—was the most difficult to “cast.” Agents were difficult to reach. Directors quailed at the idea of introducing actors they’d worked with closely. Producers laughed knowingly, yet uselessly, about these troubles.

Access was a practical problem and a terrifying prospect. How do you approach someone so readily imagined as god and king? I made countless and regrettable attempts. Over time, in this cascade of failures, the idea of working with Karthi Sivakumar grew more alluring. The ruffians he played in Paruthi Veeran and Ayirathil Oruvan were charming. I could see how thousands of bodies erupted in enthusiasm at his appearance on a stage or screen. People in the industry praised his acting skills and easy demeanor. And he was a trained engineer, with a degree from upstate New York, not far from a college where I once taught. I imagined telling him all this. I imagined him listening appreciatively. I finally had a chance to meet Karthi’s father, Sivakumar. Clad in a crisp white pantsuit, the elder man was unexpectedly warm. He presented me with a few of his own books and DVDs, signing fond words into a copy of his autobiography.

Shooting of Siruthai. Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

Shooting of Siruthai. Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

In the face of such sincerity, I was embarrassed to ask for a chance to meet his son. Still, of course, I did. Karthi was shooting daily for Siruthai, the senior actor told me, but he promised to try to arrange a meeting when they took a break. Sivakumar himself had acted in nearly two hundred Tamil films over the span of forty years, stories, he said, that pursued him still. “Literally, I stopped acting six years back. But every night, in my sleep, the shoots go on.”

The moment finally approached, two weeks later. I was loitering in a deserted bookstore near Gemini Flyover in Chennai, checking to see whether they had sold any copies of my last book. In the lobby, I managed to catch Sivakumar on the phone. “I’m waiting for his call,” he said. "As soon as it comes, I will call you." I wandered around by taxi, waiting anxiously. Karthi would leave Chennai soon for Badami, to shoot the climactic action sequence for the film—over that bridge that you already know, the one that the art director Rajeevan was building. By that late summer of 2010, my own fieldwork for this book was nearing completion. To spend a few days with the actor in Karnataka—could that be enough for this most desperately incomplete chapter? I thought of trying to pass the time at a nearby café. Then, idly fishing the phone out of my pocket once again, I saw the sms: 7 o’clock is ok for u? I rushed the driver along a narrow road, stopping only to buy some breath freshener for my parched mouth. I suddenly noticed the wrinkles on my shirt.

Karthi was more than I could have imagined: affable, sensible, talkative. “I always wanted to know what anthropologists do,” he said with a friendly laugh. I could hardly believe it. We talked about New York. He’d written a master’s thesis in industrial engineering: “Scheduling of Electronic Assemblies in a High-Mix Low-Volume Environment.” Thinking back on that thesis, he said, had helped with the caprice of his work as an actor, the utterly unpredictable fit between oneself and a role to play. “There won’t be a breakthrough for six months,” Karthi recalled. “The breakthrough will come in one day, and you would’ve finished the project in one week. It happened to me.” Although I didn’t say it at the time, I knew exactly what he meant.

One cloudy morning ten days later, I’m on a plateau of crumbling sandstone in northern Karnataka, surrounded by undulating ridges of thorny bush, low grass, and outcrops of jagged rock. Among these clumps of grass and rock, men are shuffling cables, boxes, poles, and other gear, preparing for the shoot that will begin later today. I suddenly notice Karthi sitting on a wide slab of red stone, clad in dark blue jeans and a simple gray jacket. I sit down beside him on the slab of rock, jutting from a steep face of the high plateau. “Lovely place,” he says. “Are you ready?” I ask. “It’s coming slowly,” he says. “You can’t become Jackie Chan in a day.” He warns me that these scenes will lack emotional drama. “As an actor your contribution is small for the stunt sequences,” he explains. Still, there’s something essential he must give, something he will think and talk about every day of the shoot: “You give intensity.”

In Indian literary tradition, the faculty of imagination, bhavana, is a generative and productive force, a means of bringing things more fully into being by intensifying their reality. Such was the case with the fifteenth-century Telugu devotional poems of Annamayya, in which the god he praised comes into completeness through the imaginative activity of the devotee’s mind. “It is not the original image that the imagination finds,” David Shulman writes, “but, through the finding, something much fuller, something the imagination itself has driven to the surface and then shaped and deepened by seeing or reimagining it. That is why one needs the whole panoply of mirrors, memories, paintings, poems.” Consider, for example, that implausible but ubiquitous form of mirroring found in Indian cinema, the “double role.”

Every successful actor here, it seems, seizes the chance to intensify the heroism of his persona by playing two (sometimes even more) roles at once. In the world of Siruthai, Karthi Sivakumar plays both cop and thief. Rathnavel Pandian is a righteous police officer dispatched to tackle a gang of mountain bandits. He pursues this campaign with a fearsome snarl, hence the Siruthai, or leopard, of the film’s title. Rocket Raja is an irreverent pickpocket, absorbed in various exploits until one day the bandits mistake him—and why wouldn’t they?—for the cop. The plot reveals Rathnavel’s death and Raja’s quest to avenge his doppelganger. The climax happens at the lair of the villains, where their leader, Bhadra, has kidnapped Raja’s girlfriend and Rathnavel’s orphaned daughter. Siruthai is a faithful remake of a Telugu hit, produced by Karthi’s cousins and chosen deliberately for its mass appeal. “This kind of mass commercial film,” Karthi says, “when an actor can pull it off, it gives you another jump in the market.”

Karthi has a vivid image of what his audience wants: “a hero in the film, not an actor.” Many had been disappointed with the ending of Ayirathil Oruvan earlier that year, his character looking blankly as his world erupted in an orgy of indeterminate violence. “Why wasn’t I doing anything about it? Why was I witnessing everything happening around me?” This film will end very differently, the actor tells me. “It’s very Hollywood. Hero comes in and saves the day.” Rocket Raja begins the film as a selfish and comical character, but by the end, he will avenge the fallen cop with newfound valor. I follow Karthi down a narrow rock path as he talks of these things. When the camera rolls, Raja struggles with mock emphasis to hold back the unseemly axe of the brutish villain. “This is just like the Jetix channel,” he jokes to the frightened little girl that Bhadra holds tightly. “See this dirty uncle? This is the villain. I’m the hero. What will the hero do to the villain?” “He’ll hit him!” she exclaims. And when he does, cheers erupt from a crowd of local men, women, and children watching the shoot from a nearby ridge. It’s as though the world has already become that universe of masculine heroism.

Karthik Sivakumar during a film shooting. Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

Karthik Sivakumar during a film shooting. Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

I’m struck by the friendly conversation Karthi shares with Supreet Reddy, the actor playing Bhadra. Supreet presents a curious and mysterious figure. Clad in a brown jute vest and dirty black cloak, with a necklace of curved animal teeth draped around his neck, he retreats to a lone chair and umbrella on the edge of the shoot whenever he can, knotted strings of hair falling over his face as he taps the keys of a small mobile phone. He speaks with a gruff voice that somehow feels soft at the same time. While he’s played villains in over fifty south Indian films already, his brother works as an engineer in Seattle. “I like doing negative characters,” Supreet says with a sardonic laugh. “The more cruel, the better for me.” His wooden axe looks frighteningly big beside the small girl playing Rathnavel’s daughter. Curious, but no doubt with a trace of censure in my voice as well, I ask how he manages to threaten this child with death. “If you got the chance,” he asks, “would you want to do a positive or a negative role?” “A positive role,” I tell him. It’s difficult to imagine myself otherwise. He watches me closely, then asks when I’ll return to India. “You can do a sadistic role,” he advises. “Half the acting is in the eyes. Looking at you, I can see you doing a sadistic character.” I’m shaken by what he sees. My eyes keep drifting to the patches of plastic scar tissue peeling from his cheek. Then I recover some ethnographic composure. “What about Karthi?” I ask, lamely, already knowing where this will lead. “He can only play a hero,” Supreet declares. “Soft, no, his eyes?”

On a flat expanse of bare brown ground, Rocket Raja and Bhadra finally confront each other directly. They grapple with axe, stone, bare hands, and booted feet. This is the “solo fight” to which the film builds, and for close to a minute, there’s hardly anyone else to see. You can’t always tell who or what is acting now in the film. Perspective on the scene jumps, darts, shakes, and spins wildly, cutting too quickly to distinguish blow from blow. The sounds of swift limbs and clanking metal lead or lag behind their visible movement. Spurting dirt, tattered clothing, and whipping hair express the violence.

The scene is composed in bits and pieces over several days. Early each morning, thirty fighters gather to face the sun and silently pray. Three men make up the first row of this motley group: Karthi, Supreet, and Ganesh Kumar, the film’s stunt master. Someone slices open a lime and squeezes its juice on the ground, and each approaches Ganesh to touch his suede boots or the earth before his feet. Karthi is the first to make this gesture of humility and respect. Everyone addresses Ganesh only as “Master.” The stunt master is a third-generation fighter in south Indian cinema, and he has fought in over two hundred films. “There’s so much history,” he tells me just after dawn one morning. He’s not talking about the archaeological site where they’ve been shooting this week—what he means instead is the history of blows recorded on his body: the knee crushed by an accident eight years back; his back trouble between discs l3 and l4; the sternum he’s broken twice. “You’ll have certificates in your room to show what you’ve studied,” he tells me.

"We have x-rays and medical certificates.” Like a dance choreographer, Ganesh is constantly improvising moves. With a sporty bandanna around his neck, he works out darting blows suitable for a thief. “It’s like a monkey’s work,” he says, describing the style he’s developing for this accidental hero. Ganesh also has to keep in mind the physical condition of Karthi’s body, the back problems, for example, that keep troubling the shoot. “We’ll have to make it seem as though he’s got it,” he vows. The plateau is strewn with equipment that will help with this semblance: thick mats of padding, rocks and branches built of foam, blood-red paint and pliable shoes, and the metal hooks and lines of black cable leading up to a forty-foot crane, towering over the horizon. On breaks between shots, stories are shared about such things from other shoots: moments of accident when they assumed a dangerous life of their own, snapping, swinging, falling, breaking away unexpectedly. Attention will be focused here, however, on the action of the hero alone. “Are you doing spycam?” a voice calls out with friendly concern as I record some rehearsals on my iPhone. It’s the director, Shiva, worried that my video might leak onto YouTube. There’s just one thing he forbids me to record on video: this crane, as it lifts the hero for high leaps and kicks. “Let them believe that Spiderman can fly,” he says.

There are many extraordinary things Rocket Raja does in his battle with Bhadra. He aims a kick at the villain’s chest, but Bhadra catches hold of his left knee. Raja leaps off the ground with his other foot, pivots upside-down high in the air, pins Bhadra’s head between his own knees, turns down to grab Bhadra’s legs with his arms, rolls the villain onto his back, comes up to grab one of his legs, and snaps it sideways with a painful jerk, all in a single movement. Physical laws of gravity, mass, and momentum are defied by the hero’s body. On one break, Karthi tells Ganesh how Akira Kurosawa gave fight scenes a new intensity by intercutting wide shots of such action with close-ups of the face. A palpable rage twitches on his own face as many of the shots here are composed and taken. Where does this intensity come from? “I just got hit in the face,” Karthi says.

“Yesterday, the last shot.” He speaks causally, as though this is quite straightforward, but I am puzzled. In what sense did he “just” get hit in the face? Just now, the makeup man had applied blood to his brow. When I ask about this, Karthi only smiles. “It’s all make-believe, right? That’s my job. I have to deliver. You’re writing a book. You have to go page by page.” If this is indeed a matter of belief, where and how is this feeling conjured? Imagination is taken too easily as a matter of inward vision. Like cinema itself, imagination’s images are composed through myriad techniques and technologies, active and dynamic relationships that minds and bodies assume with a wider environment for life. On the set for Siruthai, for example, everything depends on the relationship between the hero and the world of activity around him. Take the high crane, for example, dangling the ropes and hooks with which Raja will execute his leaping overhead turn. There is talk of The Karate Kid as Karthi practices these moves on a thick foam mat covered by canvas and dirt. “As if you’re doing it yourself,” the stunt master advises. Karthi, learning how to lift one leg as if pushing off solely with the other, understands. “It should be done as if I’m doing it myself, without support.”

All of these artifacts matter: the black vest around his chest, the steel rope clipped to it, the team of stuntmen pulling the rope back, and the crane through which it is laced. Still, the imaginative reach of this moment also depends on the building of a more private alliance with oneself: “Basically, you have to do exactly what you’re going to do in every second of the entire action,” Karthi says. “You have to do it yourself. The rope is there for help. You have to do it the way you will do it, thinking that you can jump, and you can. . . . At every point you should be conscious about yourself. . . . Your body, your hands, your legs, where exactly, what it is doing.” I marvel at this idea, that the hero must somehow focus his attention, second by second, entirely upon his own body. “It’s not so great, anybody can do it,” Karthi replies, quietly and with modesty, suggesting that it takes practice more than anything else. But then he adds, “It’s a lot easier compared to Jackie Chan, who does it himself.” Even he, it seems, has his heroes. Does he believe that Jackie Chan can fly? Must he?

A chapter in Constantin Stanislavski’s Building a Character describes exercises in moving with a fictive drop of mercury. “We all did the same,” a student actor reports, “letting the imaginary mercury roll up and down our limbs, shoulders, chins, noses, then let it run out again.” At one point, the student wonders, “Did we really feel its passage through our muscular system, or did we imagine that we felt the imaginary mercury coursing through us!” But there’s little time here for such reflections; they must work ceaselessly on the movements, again and again. “I’m reading Stanislavski’s book now,” Karthi says one morning, naming this one, Building a Character. “Is it useful?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “Every single thing in your body can help you to look like a different person. You should know how to use it.” Karthi echoes the Russian dramatist on the importance of habit, practice, and discipline. There’s also the relationship between inward fiction and outward expression that Stanislavski nurtured as a matter of technique. “Imagination,” he wrote, “while devoid of flesh and blood, has the ability to summon genuine actions from flesh and blood—from our bodies.” For Karthi too, such experience is essential: “How deep you believe what’s happening.” There is something very peculiar in this, he admits, as the events are themselves unreal. “Your body is not paining. You did not [feel] a blow. But you stand there. You feel it.” There’s also the scrambled time in which these happenings are staged, for when the take begins, “you’re in the middle of the action.” How to react compellingly now to a punch landed two days ago? “Playing a part means becoming a true character, not pretending to be someone else,” Kirsten Hastrup observes in a study of Shakespearean actors. Karthi speaks of imagining the life of the person he is playing and seeking a way of dwelling in that life. “Creating the situation again and again, in my mind—that is what it is,” he tells me. He closes his eyes to practice this, “seeing myself from my point of view” as he thinks of Rocket Raja’s routines: coffee in the morning without brushing his teeth, wandering the slum with his friends, sitting beside the sea and feeling the heat of the sun. “It is his nature which creates through him,” Stanislavski wrote about the actor’s creation of a character: “he is only the instrument.” Karthi too talks about the organic expression of an actor’s selfhood, a personal nature gaining depth and diversity—both inside and out—through such practices of imagination. “You get more and more intricate towards it,” he reflects. “I think you grow in layers.” I find what he says fascinating. All of this feels intensely familiar from my own experience as an ethnographer, yet remains so inscrutable.

Closing on Bhadra beside a deep ravine and a narrow old bridge—the one that Rajeevan and his crew put up—Raja lands a few swift kicks and punches. His arm is bleeding, but his curled tongue juts out visibly from an open mouth, casting a look of mischievous disdain. The gesture is a familiar Tamil expression of heedless aggression, often identified with lower-class men. “As you go into that mood and do it,” Karthi explains, “it will come naturally.” Working actively now with a gesture that expresses itself, the actor modulates its force and meaning. “Was that funny?” he asks after one take, ensuring that the gesture matches the narrative progression of the sequence. “He’s confident now, isn’t he?” Karthi asks Ganesh. “He’s not yet afraid?” He hasn’t yet seen, that is, the little girl dangling over the edge of the precipice? Gathering around the video monitor to review each take, actor, director, cameraman, and stunt master refine such expressions of feeling with a language of mechanical adjustment: higher or lower, lesser or greater, faster or slower, lighter or heavier. “The more you believe in the situation that is actually happening, [the more] your meter keeps increasing,” Karthi says. “It’s like the fan regulator, you know.” But although such talk suggests that imagination may be harnessed and channeled, its workings also constantly surpass these moments of control. Whatever happens in the film doesn’t begin when the director calls “Action,” nor does it stop immediately after the director calls “Cut.” Instead, for Karthi, these situations keep trespassing the boundary between film and life.

Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

Photo courtesy: Anand Pandian

Shot after shot, his face holds strangely in a frown or grimace lingering oddly out of place, as others bustle all around him with mirrors, notepads, lenses, and cables. The film slackens its hold on his imagination with visible and peculiar delay. “Because you are always straining your mind,” Karthi admits, “it does some things which you don’t even ask it to do.” Everything that happens here depends upon this play of imagination, in which I am also caught as an observer. Karthi smiles at me one morning in the midst of a rehearsal. I smile back reflexively, beaming inwardly at this shared moment of mutual recognition—after all, I’m a stranger and he’s the hero. But then I feel a slight blush of shame, as he turns away with the look still playing on his face. “Did you have a very active imagination as a child?” I later ask. He laughs in acknowledgment. “Overimagination. I used to tell stories to everybody. My own stories. Very James Bond–inspired.” A few minutes later, he lies down in the dirt beside a clear Plexiglas panel, grasping a painted rock made of foam, preparing to gaze fiercely at the reflective glass bulb of a camera lens swaddled in thick black cloth.

I don’t know him very well. But from what I can see, he seems to live in the midst of a ceaseless stream of stories. He’s voluble and funny on breaks. He sings to himself. We take a run together along the main road one evening, and tales pass between us continuously. The impression he conveys is one of overflow. Prabhu, his cousin, and one of the film’s producers, agrees. “If you get him started, he’ll talk to you for hours.” Karthi’s father, Sivakumar, is also like this. Conversations with him are long and drifting. Once I pressed the father for some insight into the imagination of the child. His children didn’t see very much of him at home, Sivakumar admitted: he left each morning at six, and returned at ten-thirty each night. But in those same twenty years, he added, Karthi watched almost a hundred films and characters that his father played. “All of this would be passing continuously into the subconscious mind.” He told the story of one film released when Karthi was two or three years old. Sivakumar played a Catholic priest. Someone came to confess a murder. To protect this secret, the priest declared himself responsible for the death. The entire village rushed to attack and lock him up. Only then did the murderer admit to the crime. “Imagine seeing this film close up,” Sivakumar said. “The boy is sitting before this screen. On the screen, they are beating the father with their slippers. There is a close-up of him bleeding. The way he cried and shouted then, sullying that theater! ‘They’re beating my appa, they’re beating my appa!’” Hurrying out of the theater in the midst of his own film’s climax, the actor carried his son down the road to the beach and bought him some ice cream to try to calm him down. But the child continued to cry out. “Appa, appa, they’re beating my appa!” He tried to bring him back—“Hey, it’s your appa here that’s feeding you this!”—but the boy was inconsolable. “No, they beat my appa, they beat my appa!” “When they magnify that and show it,” Sivakumar said, “the father being beaten, the slippers coming down on him, when all that happens . . . The ice cream is sweet and good, but in his mind, the father is being beaten. All of that will reach within those children, no?”

“To live a hundred years in the hearts of a people,” a tearful constable tells Rocket Raja at the midpoint of Siruthai, “it’s enough to live for a single day.” He speaks of Rathnavel Pandian, lying gravely wounded in a hospital ward. As the constable recounts the fallen cop’s heroism, we catch glimpses of how Rathnavel has lived such a life, vanquishing the depraved authority of these demonic bandits. With rain, wind, time, and other cosmic forces on his side, and a spinning metallic disc in hand, the policeman slaughters countless foes and restores order under his rule. It is difficult not to imagine him as Vishnu, the avenging deity of Brahmanical Hinduism. In peninsular India, righteous gods and kings share a kinship dating back to the early centuries of the Common Era. In this age of cinema, many of the temples and monuments of that time have been revived as centers of veneration. Others survive as decaying objects of appeal, such as the local sites of touristic attraction marked so hopefully on the paper placemats laid out each morning at the Badami Court Hotel, where all of us are staying. It is on a sandstone rise overlooking the archaeological ruins of Badami, erstwhile capital of the Chalukya Empire between the sixth and eighth centuries, that the tense finale of Siruthai is shot over several days. The museum commemorating this history is scarcely mentioned by the filmmakers, although everyone and everything must pass daily through its gates to reach the stone stairs leading up to the height of the plateau. Then there are the plentiful gangs of pigs, dripping black sewage onto the narrow, muddy lanes of what is Badami today, an acrid reminder of the impermanence of human exertion. Karthi too is prone to such reflections. “As appa says,” he muses one morning, “don’t assume that things will remain as they are.” I remember an image like this in his father’s autobiography. “Fame that cinema gives is like the transient clouds of Kodaikanal,” Sivakumar writes. “It arrives unannounced and vanishes quite as suddenly.”

Across the lime-green waters of the Badami lake are the remnants of Chalukya-era cave temples: Vaishnava, Saiva, and Jain. One afternoon, the pull of these distant black spheres strung along the cliffs proves irresistible, and I cross over for a look. On one side of the lake, artisans are preparing the serrated discus that Rocket Raja will hurl to annihilate Bhadra. On the other side, in one of the caves, a stone Vishnu quells the lofty ambitions of the demon Bali with three steps through the immensity of the cosmos, a lesson in humility imparted through a cunning shift of perspective. In one of his many arms, he bears his own steadfast discus. The space has an air of epic grandeur and desolation. The vastness between the cliffs is like a resonance chamber, amplifying the sounds that carry across the water. Wet clothes slap sharply against the sandstone steps below. Then there’s the fluctuating thrum of diesel generators and the words “Ready . . . take . . . action!” resounding even at this distance. The silhouette of a protective umbrella—an abiding visual sign of Indian kingship—bobs along the edge of the shoot, suggesting the presence of someone important. From the wide-angle perspective of this viewpoint, though, everything about the film seems small, except for its sound. Although the stunt master’s commands boom across the water, there are few signs of any of the activity they intend to provoke. People appear to be milling about slowly, the forty-foot crane among them dwarfed by the ruins of the Shivalaya temple on the northern edge of the rise. The word action does nothing to change the pace, direction, or momentum of what seems to be happening from here. Meanwhile, a gang of Kannada boys has occupied a terrace below the caves, interrupting this reverie. They pose for their own cameras against the lake with jaunty hips and artful smiles, all of them heroes too. This is relevant, but also irritating. There’s nothing for me to do but wait and hope for one more glimpse of life in the vista beyond them. In this reverie, and from this distance, the entire span of it looks uncannily like a screen.

The author is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Updated Date: Jul 25, 2016 14:42 PM