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Travels of Bollywood CinemaFrom Bombay to LA$

Anjali Gera Roy and Chua Beng Huat

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780198075981

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198075981.001.0001

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Cinema in Motion

Cinema in Motion

Tracking Tamil Cinema's Assemblage

(p.164) 10 Cinema in Motion
Travels of Bollywood Cinema



Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter opposes the ‘regionalization’ of Tamil cinema and traces the transnational flows of Tamil cinema that are asymptotic with those of Hindi. Defining Tamil cinema as ‘a cinema in motion’, the chapter provides a fascinating glimpse into the different forms of sociality it has produced historically and spatially. The new forms of sociality produced by cinemas in Tamil interrupt the ideology of the Hindi film and the conceptualization of the nation state.

Keywords:   regionalization, Tamil cinema, transnational flows, sociality, ideology of Hindi film, nation state

On Assemblage

In her book The Evolution of Film: Rethinking Film Studies, Harbord argues that ‘whether gentle or savage, the discourse of film studies bifurcates into oppositional camps where either position is known in advance: either text or context, formalist analysis or interpretive analysis, film or theory, must take priority. The extant of schema of binary thought maps out the possibilities, yet the cartography ceases to serve us’ (2007: 19). Similarly, the Indian film scholar Singh (2003) had earlier asserted that approaches to cinema must be reconsidered given that cinema ‘has become radically dispersed’, in terms of contexts of appearance (airplane screens, computer screens, multiplex halls), fluidity of movement between different media technologies (online movie portals, television, and DVDs), and the superfluous integration with other commodity forms (for instance, the seamless integration of animated films, game art, and comic book spin offs). Further to this, one might also ask in what ways do people engage with films ‘within diverse modes of sociality, forms of experience and ways of being in the world’ (ibid.). How do their own conditions, contexts, histories, entangle with films and cinema? The shifts and changes that have come to bear on cinema testify to the (p.165) point that cinema ‘has completely changed its shape, form, and mode of dispersal’ (ibid.). And this dispersal demands that ‘we shift “cinema” from its conception as a purely textual object to being a socially embedded set of practices. This is a shift away from the fictionality of cinema as a formal “text” towards its fictive quality, its being “made up” as a form on the terrain of life, labour, and language’ (ibid.).

We wish to suggest that the questions that Singh raises can be addressed by shifting the view of film and cinema as something to be analysed for meanings and representations to one that approaches it as cartography or as an event; something experienced as a dynamic exchange, as activities, in motion; in short, as an assemblage, after Deleuze and Guattari (1987). An assemblage refers to any number of ‘things’ compiled into a single context and this compilation, the assemblage, can produce any number of effects. Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of the book provides a number of insights into this loosely defined term:

In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture. All this, lines and measurable speeds constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity—but we don't know yet what the multiple entails when it is no longer attributed, that is, after it has been elevated to the status of the substantive. (1987: 3–4)

What this means for film studies and our study of Tamil cinema, as Kennedy suggests, is that ‘we need to rethink a post-semiotic space, a post-linguistic space, which provides new ways of understanding the screen experience as a complex web of inter-relationalities … [it] is never purely visual, but also tactile, sensory, material and embodied’ (2000: 3). This is precisely why Velayutham points out that ‘academic scholarship [on Indian cinema] has tended to overlook the relationship between the various cinemas of India, and the role and contribution of regional cinemas to Indian cinema as a whole’ (2008a: 5). These other tactile, sensory, material, and embodied inter-relationalities remain obscured. Velayutham's lament, we argue, draws from the sentiments expressed by Grosz where she points out that it is ‘no longer appropriate to [just] ask what a text means, what it says, what is the structure of its interiority, how to interpret or decipher it. Instead, one must [also] ask what it does, how it connects with other things’ (1994: 199). Grosz's emphasis on (p.166) connectivity ruptures the binaries of text-context, formalist-interpretive, and film theory and as in Deleuze and Guattari's assemblage, shifts the focus to what a film does and how it connects with people and things. What the notion of assemblage offers, specifically in terms of exploring Tamil cinema, is a conceptual tool for thinking about cinema's complex entanglement with different modes of sociality, its relationship to the production and consumption of other commodity forms, the ways in which it ‘blocks, or makes possible other worlds’ (Fuller 2005: 1) and calls on us to ‘attend to the ways in which people position or embody themselves (or are marked) as bearers of identity within particular social and institutional networks’ (Singh 2003). More importantly, in thinking about Tamil cinema as an assemblage, we are attuned and attentive to the various connections that it has with other cinematic and non-cinematic moments to elucidate the dynamism of conceiving Tamil cinema as ‘cinema in motion’.

This chapter then seeks to develop the notion of ‘cinema in motion’ through the example of Tamil cinema by shoring up the various travels, connections and disconnections, rhythms and codes, politics, predispositions, and drives that this cinema has with other cinemas within India, with particular forms of representations, and the ‘vital structuring principles in popular culture in India’ (Mankekar 1999: 18), with practices of viewing, recent shifts in the domains of production, distribution and exhibition, and with audiences both within India and the larger Tamil diaspora (Velayutham 2008b). The list of connections and travels that we have alluded to is by no means exhaustive for there are various other linkages that inform Tamil cinema, such as the impact of digital technologies and new media platforms and various forms of popular culture (television, theatre, music) amongst others. Using the Deleuzian concept of assemblage as the model for the complex clustering of technological, historical, and physical processes, we wish to draw up an assemblage of Tamil cinema that moves from a representational and linear understanding that dominates discussions on Tamil cinema (Baskaran 1996), to one that emphasizes how it interacts with or carries out interactions with other media systems, popular culture, bodies, institutions, forms of lives, communities (defined by gender, caste, class, ethnicity, and nationality), and urban and industrial developments (Velayutham 2008 and 2008a).

In what follows, we reconstruct three different fragments that constitute one such assemblage: the first is a framing of the early history Tamil (p.167) cinema to emphasize the ways in which this cinema is closely linked to other cinema histories, Indian film industries, commodities, and forms of sociality; the second is an exploration of the texts produced during the upsurge of ethno-nationalist Tamil cinema to explore the blockages and boundary-crossing imperatives mediated across the structuring principles of nation and nationalism; and the third is a mediation on the audience to shore up the contingency of viewing and the various ways cinema is implicated within specific modes of sociality. An examination of these selected fragments of Tamil cinema allows us to see how Tamil cinema mixes, interrelates, to produce patterns, blockages, and potentials. It is in these terms for example that we can argue that the regional cinema tag that has been bestowed on Tamil cinema can be challenged by looking at, for instance, the ways in which Tamil cinema has connected with the issue of nation and nationalism. It is also in these terms that we can rethink the often-heard argument of the hegemony of Bollywood cinema as national cinema by exploring the connections that Tamil cinema has with this national cultural industry.

Fragment One—Early History of Tamil Cinema

The year 1916 is often marked as the birth of Tamil cinema with the establishment of the first studio in Madras, the India Film Company, and the release of the first South Indian feature film, Keechaka Vadham (The Destruction of Keechakan), produced by R. Nataraja Mudaliar.1 But cinema arrived in Tamil Nadu well before this, in 1897 to be precise, at the Victoria Public Hall, when ‘an Englishman named M. Edwards’ screened Arrival of the Train and Leaving the Factory. And cinema did not arrive alone, as an isolated machine of modernity. Rather, it was part and parcel of a larger assemblage of machines and commodities that marked ‘the mechanical reproduction of the works of art’. In Benjamin's (1968) sense: it marks both the coming of modernization and the democratization of art. Cinema, from its inception in Tamil Nadu was entangled with the changing sociality of this region, with the larger project of modernization and industrialization. This was the time when ‘daily newspapers in Tamil, beginning with Swadesamithran (Friend of Self Rule) in 1899, had been launched. In Madras city, a motor car could be occasionally sighted …. Just two years earlier, trams had been introduced … some affluent households and companies (p.168) had telephones. People were getting used to the marvel of listening to recorded music from … the gramophone’ (Baskaran 1996: 2), which would become intimately connected to cinema. In that sense, cinema arrived in Tamil Nadu in connection with other commodity forms, a differing sociality and the powerful discourse of industrialization, marked as the quintessential manifestation of modernity. The choice of Victoria Hall is significant as it was then consecrated as the Town Hall for the town of Madras, a decision that was made in March 1882 at a meeting of leading citizens (Ramakrishnan 2006). More crucially, cinema was intimately entangled with the project of capital accumulation, a connection that was not lost on Major Warwick who ‘built the first cinema house in South India, Electric Theatre in 1900 on Mount Road in Madras’ (ibid.). Warwick's choice of Mount Road was astute: it was and still remains the main arterial road in Chennai, stretching 15 km and running diagonal across the city; the theatre itself had ante-rooms that had a bar and a billiards table, and ‘across the way from the Electric was Misquith & Co which a man called Cohen had acquired circa 1907 from the founders. The hall on its first floor he called the Lyric and used it to organise entertainments’ (Anon 2007). The Lyric, boasted a variety of events, including plays in English, Western classical music concerts, and ballroom dances. And silent films were also screened as an additional attraction. In that sense, films were appended or attached to other cultural industries and performances. It was not the main attraction. While it is difficult to ascertain Cohen's motivations other than perhaps as business acumen, it is clear that Electric Theatre spanned the development of other entertainment venues and forms. Cinema in that sense was part of a larger entertainment-industrial complex. And from the connections that we can draw, it is also clear that the clientele targeted was not the local population. Rather it was the colonizer's community that was the target. After all, this was the favourite haunt of the British community in Madras who could afford to pay for the entertainment. That said, cinema was not solely for the colonizers: as Sivathamby notes, the coming of cinema as a site where a large gathering of people assembled, helped break down caste hierarchies and fostered a sense of collective solidarity. In the words of Sivathamby (1981: 18), for the time ‘all Tamils sat under the same roof’. However, cinema still remained the purview of those in the city and it was a draughtsman, Swamikannu Vincent who ‘worked for the Railways in Tiruchi, who (p.169) [between 1905–9] introduced this newfangled entertainment medium to the interior of the Madras presidency’ (Baskaran 1996: 3). Around the same time, ‘R. Venkiah who owned a photographic studio on Mount Road’ bought a chrono megaphone, ‘which was a film projector attached to a gramophone. A gramophone record could be played as the film was screened … With this equipment, he screened [two] … short films … These films were each only 500 feet long, to match the duration of the gramophone’ (Baskaran 1996: 3). The chrono megaphone that Venkiah bought was initially imported by a British company to celebrate the event of King George the Fifth's visit in 1909, where the major attraction was the screening of short films accompanied by sound. Venkiah later on went to build Gaiety in 1914, the first cinema house in Madras built by an Indian. Gaiety is located to the rear of Electric Theatre, which was closed down two years after opening as the property was acquired by the government to develop the Mount Road Post Office. Venkiah then went on to build the Crown in Mint Street in 1916 and the Globe (later Roxy) in Purasawalkam in 1917/1918, both of which were close to the Chennai Railway Station and Chennai Central.

Our reading of this initial history suggests that cinema arrived in Tamil Nadu in and amongst other industrial developments, as a commodity in and amongst other commodities, as ‘implicated within diverse modes of sociality’ (Singh 2003). While the first two, as technology and commodity ‘have a certain logic to them, … the last as a form of experience is perhaps the hardest to grasp’ (ibid.). We will discuss the last in the final section where we explore the reception of cinema amongst those of the Indian diaspora to Singapore.

Cinema's appearance and development in Tamil Nadu coincided with the general ethos of modernization and industrialization: the railway for instance ensured that cinema reached the interiority while the gramophone and the printing press (magazines, daily newspapers) set the stage for a much more fluid relationship to the technology and commodity of cinema. After all, the mechanical reproduction of art had become part of the social present. The coming of the gramophone had a democratizing impact in that it made possible the recording and mechanical multiplication of Carnatic music, historically a form of art for the privileged (kings and landlords) (see Hughes 2007). And now ‘the common man has the opportunity to savour it [recoded classical music] for the first time’ (Baskaran 1996: 40). This, coupled with the developed status of (p.170) company dramas—itself a mutation of traditional Tamil theatre—that operated on a commercial basis with professional actors had produced a mass entertainment sensibility into which cinema connected. Cinema also linked up with other commodity forms such as the gramophone, bars (and all that comes with it), forms of retails, Western classical music concerts, English plays, and other colonial forms of expressions as well as with traditional theater and the company drama, ‘which contributed to the basic of film music’ (Baskaran 1996: 40). While Carnatic music was the mainstay of the drama companies, which explain their take up in early talkies in Tamil cinema,

they introduced a new strain of music into Tamil Nadu, … drama music, a kind of Hindustani music appropriated from Marathi drama companies which toured Tamil Nadu at the beginning of the century. Through this strain, Hindustani ragas were assimilated …. Another influence on drama and cinema music came from Parsi drama companies which toured the Madras presidency in the 1930s. They introduced a mixture of Carnatic and Hindustani music called Parsi tunes which eventually found their way into cinema. (Baskaran 1996: 40–41)

Further to this, cinema circulated differently within the lives of the people (both colonizer and colonized). So even though as Sivathamby argues that cinema in Tamil Nadu can be conceived as a democratizing public space, in tent cinemas for instance, there were usually three classes of tickets: the floor, bench, and chair. The floor-ticket purchaser sat on sand to watch the movie, but he enjoyed certain advantages that other patrons did not. He could sit as he pleased, or he could turn over and take a short nap when the narrative was particularly dull, and roll back again when the action was again to his liking—luxuries which the upper class could never indulge in. This difference produced through the prism of purchasing power reinscribed another form of division within cinema.

In addition to such crossovers, there was also a great deal of synergy (sharing of technological knowledge and expertise) between various cinematic enterprises that sprung across the Indian subcontinent. During the screening of silent films title cards or ‘inter-titles’ as they were known, were used to convey the story and dialogue. As the Tamil film historian Randor Guy (1997) notes, these inter-titles were written in more than one language, which meant that films made in Madras were also screened all over India with the respective language inter-titles. (p.171) Moreover, ‘during the silent film era, films made in Madras were also screened in other parts of India. Film producers, technicians, engineers, and other specialists came from Bombay and Calcutta to work in Madras and vice versa’ (Velayutham 2008: 5). The crossover that were dominant during the silent era continued into the early period of Tamil talkies, which were often shot in Bombay, Pune, or Calcutta where studio floors were hired and made by directors and technicians who did not know Tamil. With the arrival of sound, again if we browse through the Indian filmography, we can discover that dubbing and remaking of films were an integral part of Indian cinema history. Films made in Hindi were dubbed or remade into Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam, and vice versa. It is worth noting that Tamil film studios such as Vijaya, Prasad, and AVM for example have continued to produce Hindi films since the 1950s to the present (Thoraval 2000). Artists (production and acting) have been working across the various cinemas on a regular basis. For instance, Tamil actors Vyjayanthimala, Sridevi, Kamal Hassan, and Madhavan have had huge success in Bollywood. In addition, Tamil cinema has also attracted, especially, female actors from other cinemas past and present such as Bhanumati from Andhra Pradesh, the Padmini sisters from Kerala, Saroja Devi from Karnataka, and Simran, Sneha, Reema Sen, Sonia Agarwal, and Aishwarya Rai from other parts of India. These synergies have helped to enhance and invigorate various aspects of the cinemas of India. In recent times, Tamil cinema directors such as Mani Ratnam, Ram Gopal Varma, and Shankar have been working in Hindi, Malayalam, and Telugu films. It is worth noting that Mani Ratnam's award-winning Tamil films such as Nayagan (1987), Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), and Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004) that were remade in Hindi have had huge success nationally. Further to this, Indian film music composers like A.R. Rahman and most of the playback singers work across the film industries. Overall, it can be argued that the various film industries in India are not just self-contained production sites but are fluid and versatile in the ways they attract new talents. And these industries have been mutually benefiting from one another.

In that sense, Tamil cinema from its inception has always been historically intertwined with other locations of production in India. Given its multifarious connections, it can be argued that Tamil cinema is a form of contagion, shifting, mutating, and connecting with other cinematic forms, expertise and styles, commodities, cultural practices, (p.172) and diverse socialities in different ways, producing different intensities and trajectories that are highly complex and multifaceted. In short, it reinforces the proposition calling for a conception of Tamil cinema as ‘cinema in motion’.

Fragment Two—Ethno-Nationalist Tamil Cinema

Discussions on the ethno-nationalism of Tamil cinema or more precisely the relationship between cinema and politics have been extensively done (Baskaran 1981; Devadas and Velayutham 2008; Dickey 1993; Hardgrave 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1975; Hardgrave and Neidhart 1975; Pandian 1992 and 2000; Sivathamby 1981). Collectively, these scholars emphasize the symbiotic relationship between cinema and politics by focusing on the representational politics of key Tamil films, stars, and ‘how these texts circulate in diverse sociocultural contexts and get hinged to various meanings’ (Punathambekar and Kavoori 2008: 8). The argument here is that there emerged a number of films that marked the entry of what Thoraval (2000: 318) calls ‘an ethno-linguistic “nationalism”, anti-Hindi and anti-north (India), and as its corollary, the putting forward, in literature and on the screen, of the glories, languages and culture of the ancient “Dravidians”’.

Films such as Ambikapathy (1937) and Kambar (1938) for instance sought to open up a representational space within cinema for the dissemination of a sense of Tamil cultural nationalism. The release of these films coincided with the radicalization of the Dravidian ideology in the 1930s, particularly after the ‘the introduction of compulsory Hindustani in 1938’ (Barnett 1976: 52), which saw the Dravidian movement engage in agitation politics against the Congress Party, which it had been supporting to date. The antagonism surrounding the compulsory introduction of Hindi as national language, marked the beginning of the affirmation of Tamil identity ‘rooted in the Tamil literary movement of the early nineteenth century’ (Chadda 1997: 71). Such a political position, one that strongly affirms Tamil nationalism as a separatist discourse and as antithetical to the idea of a singular nation is well played out in the two films through the figure of Kambar, the eleventh-century Tamil poet who authored the Tamil version of the Ramayana. The appeal to the spectre of Kambar in both films must be read as attempts to prise open the hegemony of Hindi and at the (p.173) same time affirm the ideology and political thrust of the Dravidian movement. Kambar was released at the same time that anti-Hinduism agitation took hold in Tamil Nadu over the central government's decision to introduce ‘Hindustani in certain schools as a compulsory subject’ (Barnett 1976: 51) and the ‘the hope for rejuvenation of the Dravidian movement’ (ibid.: 65) begun to have a firm grip on Tamil Nadu politics. The cinematic representation of Dravidianism played out through such films while not as dominant as those affirming the nationalist struggle marked ‘the cinema of Madras … by two contradictory tendencies’ (Thoraval 2000: 318). The latter tendency, of turning inward into an unproblematic, uncontaminated, and unchallenged notion of Dravidianism based on linguistic and cultural differences became key categories that were mobilized during the period of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [Dravidian Progress Federation]) and later AIADMK (All-India Anna DMK) stranglehold of Tamil cinema. The use of cinema for political purposes, namely, the construction of an imagined community-based on linguistic homogeneity was one of the central themes that preoccupied postcolonial Tamil cinema. There is quite an extensive catalogues of films that demonstrate that the postcolonial rendition of the idea of the nation, as reflected through Tamil cinema, intervenes into a specifically ordered version of Indian nationalism and problematizes the notion of a national cinema.

Beyond the representational politics affirming Tamil nationalism, the success of the cinema-politics nexus is connected to the larger revivalism of Tamil culture in the arts during the colonial period, specifically literature ‘in the latter half of the nineteenth century … [which] created tremendous interest in the language’, to the founding in 1880 of the Tamil magazine Swadesamithran which ‘became a daily in 1899 … [to the circulation of] around sixty periodicals in Tamil … in the next two decades’ (Baskaran 1996: 19). Other developments which were part of this revivalism included ‘the rediscovery and publication of Tamil classics of the Sangam period … [the publication of] V. Kanagasabai Pillai's Tamils 1800 Years Ago … Somasundara Barathi's Tamil Classics and Thamizhagam [Tamil Home] … and M. Srinivas Ayyengar's Tamil Studies' (ibid.: 19–20). The climate of Tamil revivalism entered cinema mainly through the use of dialogue-writers, ‘who wrote flowery lines in chaste Tamil, studded with literary allusions’ (ibid.: 19–20). One dialogue writer Illangovan ‘is identified with a group of Tamil writers (p.174) associated with the Tamil magazine Manikodi [Gem Necklace] who were committed to striving towards excellence in literature and other arts in Tamil Nadu and who recognized the possibilities of film as a medium’ (ibid.: 19–20).

While drawing on this larger revivalism history as articulated in various media outlets (stage, plays, magazines, periodicals, literature, and poetry), the DMK's use of cinema for political propaganda strategically reappropriated the form of dialogue in political rallies into cinema. As Baskaran notes, the strategic use of dialogue took form at a particular time, ‘when writers began using dialogue to echo the ideas of the Dravidian movement … [and] reached its apogee when some leaders of the Dravidian movement entered the film industry as dialogue writers and used films for propaganda purposes, as C.N. Annadurai did with Velaikari [Servant Maid, 1949]… M. Karunanidhi … with the film Marudanattu Ilavarasi [Princesses of Madura Country, 1950] [and later] Parasakthi' (1996: 64–5). In addition, the use of dialogue did not obey normative cinematic conventions of film dialogue in that the leaders of the political party who scripted the dialogue wrote speeches ‘that was meant for crowds at a political rally [but which] was delivered to the film audience’ (Baskaran 1996: 67). The imposition of political oratory as cinematic dialogue was strategic insofar as it opened the possibility of exploiting film, converting it into ‘a public address system … where characters address not their fellow characters in the film but the camera—in other words, the audience’ (ibid.: 67). The use of long dialogues that profess the achievements of the Dravidian culture, the plight of the poor and the untouchables and the urgent needs for social reform and justice exemplifies the way in which cinematic dialogue is reappropriated for political purposes. In addition to reappropriating dialogue for political purposes, the DMK engaged in a politics of subterfuge as a means of combating the Congress-led censorship regulation deterring the use of cinema for political purposes through the coding ‘of double meanings in dialogue’ (Hardgrave 1973: 294). The explicit and exemplary instance of this occurred through the production of the ‘character called Anna’—the Tamil word for elder brother and the popular name for Annadurai—who appeared in almost all the DMK films as a wise and sympathetic counsellor. In a historical film, for example, the dialogue might go, ‘Anna, you are going to rule one day,’ at which the audience would break into wild applause (ibid.: 294). Another example (p.175) of the turn to subterfuge that Hardgrave cites can be seen in the historical film Kanchee Talaivar (Leader of Kanchee, 1963) which narrates the story of a ‘Pallava king whose capital was the city of Kanchee (Kancheepuram). Not without coincidence, Annadurai was from Kanchee, and he was known as Kanchee Talaivar … The censors demanded a change of title, but, after all, [since] it did refer to a Pallava kingdom … the DMK got the title’ (1973: 294). The reappropriation of cinematic protocols for political communication, specifically a brand of politics that was divorced from that advanced by the postcolonial nation-state, serves to further demonstrate the ways in which Tamil politics and cinema interrupts the national cinema's project of discursively constructing a sense of a national people through cinema.

What appears at this moment in Tamil cinema with the ethno-nationalist turn is a connection with a longer history of ethno-nationalism expressed through other mediatized and non-mediatized modes of representation and inscription (plays, literature, magazines), a connection with, and reappropriation of political strategies of communication, and with other modes of sociality, specifically the hegemony of a specific form of nationalism. The connection that Tamil cinema forged at this time is quite different from the connections that marked earlier Tamil cinema in that here, the representational politics, the link with other commodities and technologies and a sociality built on Dravidian nationalism, served to block the forging of a unified post-colonial nationalism under the auspice of a north-Indian majoritarian discourse and to challenge the idea of a national cinema articulated through the optic of Bombay cinema.

Fragment Three—Sensory Experience of the Exhibition Space

In the third fragment we wish to discuss what Rai (2009) calls the ‘sensory experience of the exhibition space’. In keeping with our opening point that the task is to ask what a film does and how it connects with things, how is film entangled with and ‘within diverse modes of sociality, forms of experience and ways of being in the world’ (Singh 2003), we wish to discuss three narratives briefly and weave them into each other to exemplify the intricate and complex ways Tamil cinema connects with human bodies, lives, experiences, and different social worlds. The (p.176) excerpts from these three narratives are part of a larger ethnographic study in progress examining the consumption and reception of Tamil cinema amongst those of the Indian diaspora to Singapore.

Here is the first narrative from Mala, a 62-year-old woman, who is part of the second generation Indian diaspora to the then Malaya. Mala was educated in Tamil in an estate, or plantation school until primary six. She now lives in Singapore, having moved here from the estate near Batu Caves in 1967. She married in 1968 at the age of 21 and has three children. This is how she describes her cinematic experience in Tamil, which we have translated here:

… when we were in the estates, they [the estate owners and bureaucrats] used to show a film once a month, sometimes once every two months. They would bring along a white screen-cloth and projector and we [the estate community] would set up our mats on the ground, and get our munchies ready for the show. This was a big night for the estate; and everyone came with his or her families, mats, gunnysacks, blankets, and food. When the sun set, the show would begin, and usually, I would fall asleep soon after the samples were shown, and after I had my share of the kachangs [peanuts] and before the actual film begun because I was usually tired from having to work in the oil palm plantation the whole day. But the film was not important; it was the experience of the day that mattered. I never went to a theatre until I came to Singapore in 1967. Once a month my husband's siblings and I would go to the Taj Theatre in Geylang. The Taj used to show Tamil, Hindi and English shows. We will only go on days that Krishnan, my brother was working. He was the ticket seller and would smuggle us in for free. I watched lots of films there, MGR and Sivaji films. The first Hindi film I saw was Sangam [Confluence], at the Garrick Theatre, also in Geylang. Sangam had Raj Kapoor and Vyjayantimala and I loved the song ‘Dost dost na raha’ [My Friend Was No More My Friend]. [Mala breaks into the song]. I didn't understand Hindi, and the subtitles were in English or Malay and I didn't know either but it didn't matter. I followed the film through the actions: in fact I watched Sangam thrice. Like the estate days, it didn't matter what film was on, it was the fun of going to the theatre, getting away from housework which I had to do!

The second narrative comes from Das, one of Mala's sons—a third-generation Indian diaspora born in Singapore. He reflected:

My first experience of Tamil cinema was through television, on the state-owned Channel 8, screened over two parts and two nights—Thursday and Friday—from around 9 p.m. This was around the early 1980s when there was only four hours of programming commencing from around 6–10 p.m. on Channel 5 (English/Malay) and Channel 8 (Chinese/Tamil) of which Malay and Tamil only had an hour each. When Tamil films were on television and screened over two parts, (p.177) I normally missed part one on Thursday since Friday was a school day, and so my entry into the films were mostly after the Intermission. Friday night Tamil films on television was rather special, not only because I got to stay up late but also because it was a night filled with special nibbles, made by Mum or bought from the nearby hawker centre. And most of the time we had relatives from Malaysia who were working in Singapore staying with us. Before the film started we prepared the hall by removing all the furniture and spreading mattresses across the floor so that everyone could lie down and watch the films. The lights were turned off, and before the second part begun, we, the kids, were given a synopsis of part one since the adults did not want to be disturbed with questions during the film. Most of the adults never made it to the end of the film, and were usually snoring by the end of it. They either had work the next day or had been to work. Amidst their snoring I kept awake with my brother and sister, nibbling and trying to follow the film. This was hard since there was no English or Malay subtitles and I was never schooled in Tamil and mainly spoke Malayalam at home. But that didn't matter. It wasn't the film that we were interested in; it was the late-night extended family get together that was important.

The third narrative is from Kumar, also a third-generation Singaporean-Indian:

The first Tamil film I watched at a theatre was in the late 1970s and it was Aval Oru Thodarkathai (She is a Continuing Story, 1974) at the Hoover Theatre at Balestiar Road. I went there with my mum and Srinivas, an astrologer from India, who had become a family friend. We used to call him uncle. Srinivas had come to Singapore on a tourist visa on the ship Chithambaram to seek his fortune and had been door knocking in our block of flats, singling out Indian homes, which were quite easily identifiable because they had mango leaves tied to the top of the door. When I recollect this, I can't help think that Srinivas, who had come up with the idea of going to the cinema did so because he fancied mum. Dad was not around at that time since he worked offshore in the oil and gas industry and was away for months at end. The film we watched was very erotic; I don't think it was suitable for kids. The film was about a Brahmin girl who is sexually assaulted, raped, by a man who gives her a lift on a rainy day. That day changes her whole life and she attempts at getting her life back to normalcy, her loneliness, silence and things like that. I cried at the movie; perhaps because she reminded me of my mum—she was a silent, domesticated, lonely woman; perhaps that is why Srinivas thought this was the ideal movie.

Between a plantation economy setting to a post-war, newly independent Singapore to a much more embodied response these three narratives exemplify the various, multifaceted and complex ways that Tamil cinema connects with those of the diaspora across different generations. The cinematic experience is mediated variously, through the plantation (p.178) economy context where going to the cinema meant constructing a cinema space: finding clear, even ground, bringing your own seating, food, and blankets; it is also mediated by a master-slave dialectic since most of the people in the plantation were (historically) part of the indenture and kangani system which brought them to colonial Malaya, and the films that were shown on the estate were at the directive of the colonial masters, and later, the postcolonial local bureaucrats. As recollected by M. Palani who was interviewed for Malaysiakini for the special 2000 Merdeka issue, ‘“… we were all working at the plantation and had a white man as our boss,”‥‥ He added that while their wages were low, their “boss” had provided them with squatter homes to live in and the weekly Tamil cinema shows for entertainment’ (Kabilan 2000). Cinema for Palani compensated for his low wage and is integrated into a circuit of labour exchange: cinema is now part of wage labour. At the same time, such a reconstitution of cinema into the plantation workers’ lives tells us that cinema also provided the outlet from the mundane everyday existence of plantation workers. In that sense, for both Mala and Palani, who are separated by one generation, cinema nevertheless functions similarly: it ruptures the harsh condition of plantation labour exploitation; it disconnects them momentarily from the quotidian rhythm of plantation life. For Das, Tamil cinema is mediated quite differently, this time through the technology of television, across two days, one of which is regulated by the demands of schooling; but like Mala and Palani, cinema is also for Das about escapism from the routine of everyday life, a chance to stay up late, have munchies that are not usually part of the daily diet. In comparison to these two narratives, Kumar's recollection of his first encounter with cinema takes on a completely different trajectory: here cinema is implicated in an intimate recollection of relationships, conditions of domesticity, possible transgression of marital vows and infidelity, and the possible exploitation of specific conditions Kumar's mum finds herself. This is a much more embodied, intimate relationship to cinema.

What the above cases underscore is that Tamil cinema moves in and out of the lives of those of the diaspora differently; it is contingent upon ‘the sensory exhibition space’ (Rai 2009), the context of viewing, the forms of life the viewer is entangled in, their modes of being in the world, and so on. To cite Singh (2003), Tamil cinema as a ‘cinematic “machine” … produces concepts, percepts, affects, forms of life, and (p.179) modes of being-in-world.’ Conceiving Tamil cinema as a machine in the Deleuzian sense—‘a machine may be defined as a system of interruptions or breaks’ (1987: 36)—not only calls on us to locate cinema as part of a larger assemblage of things, objects, subjects, discourses, but also calls us on us to situate the reception of cinema within specific life worlds such that as we interrogate the ontological status of films, we are attuned to the complexities of circulation and the hierarchies of the consumption of cinema.


Let us end with a brief summary of the key propositions we have made here. We have attempted to track Tamil cinema's assemblage by looking at three different fragments—early Tamil cinema, ethno-nationalist cinema, and the reception of this cinema amongst those of the Indian diaspora in Singapore—to show that Tamil cinema is not a static cultural artefact; quite the contrary, it is a mobile machine that connects with other technologies, commodities, and people outside of its linguistic territory. It is also a machine that connects with other cinematic machines such as Bombay cinema, Bollywood, and Telugu cinema, and film industries, and other non-cinematic machines such as plays, press, cottage industries, plantation economy, and the like. At the same time, we have also shown that the machine that is Tamil cinema also blocks and interrupts, as seen most clearly during the rampant phase of ethno-nationalist cinema when Tamil cinema vehemently rejected the discourse of nation and nationalism and also put into question the status of Bombay cinema as national cinema. Indeed the connections and blockages between Tamil and other Indian language cinemas is a striking feature of Tamil cinema. For instance, most of the female lead actors in Tamil cinema are not native Tamil speakers and are drawn from all over India but the male lead have resolutely been played by a Tamil (perhaps an attempted subversion of the north-south Indian hegemony?). In Tamil films, quite often we also find deliberate and instructive references to Tamilness or Tamil identity through the dialogue or songs working as an interruptive device to articulate the uniqueness of this film industry. Finally, we explored the reception of Tamil cinema amongst those of the Indian diaspora across generations to demonstrate that cinema is entangled in complex and diverse modes of sociality; it connects and (p.180) interacts with bodies, forms of lives, and communities in different ways. The connections and breaks that we have canvassed, which is only part of a larger assemblage, attempts to echo Jonathan Beller's observation that ‘“cinema” refers not only to what one sees on screen or even to the institutions and apparatuses that generate film but to that totality of relations that generates the myriad appearances of the world’ (2006: 14). It is in this sense that we argue for a conceptualization of Tamil cinema as ‘cinema in motion’ such that we can draw links, connections, and disconnections between disparate elements, objects, and subjects with and through this cinema. In short, through this tracking of three fragments of Tamil cinema, we wish to emphasize Tamil cinema ‘as a form of contagion, endlessly mutating and spreading’, connecting with other cinematic forms, ‘human bodies, organizational structures, and energies’ (Rai 2009) in complex and multifarious ways.


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(1.) We are indebted to the work of the two well-known Tamil film historians Theodore Baskaran and Randor Guy. In Baskaran's (1981 and 1996) and Guy's (1997) works, the only English publications available on the history of Tamil cinema, the authors offer an excellent account of the arrival of cinema to the Madras Presidency at the turn of the twentieth century, the early pioneers of the film industry, who were instrumental in setting up production companies and studios, biographies of directors, producers, and actors, and synopsis of major films over the years (see also Velayutham 2008). Though there are other works on the history of Tamil cinema, these are mostly written in Tamil and have not been translated into other languages.