Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation 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 permission, The Aerogram shares a chapter from the book about Pandian’s experience dubbing for Barack Obama in a Chennai recording studio.
* * *
I was born in the Bronx in the early 1970s. My father’s parents waited eagerly for the home movies that would sometimes come to India from America, flickering images of my sister and me playing with stuffed animals and riding on wooden horses. My mother’s parents had come to New York City for my birth. Mamamma spent days lying beside me, I’ve been told, in that small apartment on 233rd Street. “Will you be an American president or an Indian president? What will you be?” my grandmother asked again and again. “Unh,” I said. Really, though, what could I say? What does it take to realize the life given voice by those who come before us?
* * *
The head of operations for the Tamil Padam film production team spies me sitting over a notebook at a café on Khader Nawaz Khan Road one afternoon in 2009. “You’re Nirav’s friend, aren’t you?” Sushant asks, recalling my work with the film’s cinematographer. They’ve wrapped up their shooting and are now in postproduction. “Can you do us a favor?”
I laugh at the idea of what he wants me to do, and insist that there must be others in Chennai far better suited for this task. “The director is looking for a black man,” Sushant admits gravely. But he calls again, two days later, with the same request.
“You’re going to dub for Obama today”
On Saturday morning, I arrive at Bharani Studios in Vadapalani, where the film’s director, C. S. Amudhan, is already at work in one of the sound-dubbing studios. “You’re going to dub for Obama today,” Amudhan declares when I step into the dark and frosty space.
I sound nothing like the president, I profess, secretly tickled by the outlandishness of the idea. But the director assures this won’t be a problem. “The audience won’t have a frame of reference, they won’t have heard Obama speak.”
“Can you tweak it a bit?” I ask, skeptically, yet not without hope.
“We can give it a bit of a baritone. Let’s see how it sounds,” he says.
* * *
The power of voice is a power of animation, bringing things and persons into unexpected life. We tend to think of this power as something deeply personal, bearing the essence of an individual. But voice always has about it an uncanny feeling of ventriloquism, the sense of being thrown from somewhere else. “The source of the voice can never be seen,” Mladen Dolar writes. “The voice comes from inside the body, the belly, the stomach.”
Cinema only deepens this gulf between the sound of a voice and its source. As Michel Chion has shown, films are full of “acousmatic” elements issuing from somewhere outside the visual frame, things heard without being seen, “wandering along the surface, at once outside and inside, seeking a place to settle.” Unseen bodies, sudden eruptions, distant murmurs — so much of cinema’s power depends on the movement of such sounds on and beyond the screen.
“Cinema only deepens this gulf between the sound of a voice and its source.”
Think of what happens in the opening minutes of C.S. Amudhan’s 2010 film, Tamil Padam (Tamil Movie). Under a thatched roof and pouring rain, a young woman wails into the dark of night. A boy is born, but in a land infamous for its partisan love of sons, this one is strangely unwanted. “Here’s fifty rupees,” the father tells the midwife. “Finish off that little life.”
A mournful flute implies that something awful will happen in these opening minutes of Tamil Padam. But the film is a spoof, the scene a parody of a wrenching Tamil movie about female infanticide from the 1990s. There, a midwife reached for a bowl of milk-white sap from the deadly kalli cactus to poison a newborn girl with her first meal. Here, the midwife reaches instead for a shiny green Tetra Pak of p.r.s. Cactus Milk. “Pure! Hygienic!” the carton reads, slickly.
“Grandma, Grandma, wait a minute!” a young voice says as the old woman bends over the child with the carton’s offerings. She looks up and around, unable to place its source. “Look here, Grandma, it’s me, Mini-Superstar speaking!” the voice says again. She looks down with wide eyes, finally connecting the sound to the newborn infant on her lap.
“I’ll go to Madras and truly become a great hero,” chirps the voice, trying to convince her to spare his life. The midwife is impressed with his verbal flair. “You’re already speaking in punch lines!” she exclaims, vowing to save the child and take him to Madras herself.
Years go by, and the child, Shiva, has indeed become a valiant, if somewhat diffident hero. One afternoon, his phone begins to buzz with pleas to undertake an undercover operation against some notorious Chennai gangsters. First the police commissioner. Then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Then the prime minister of India. Shiva rebuffs them all. Then the cell phone screen scrolls one more name: “Obama calling.”
With a casual flicker of recognition, Shiva takes the call. The film lingers for a few seconds on the image of a dark silhouette standing before a flagpole, curtain, and American presidential seal.
“Okay, dude, I’ll do it for you,” Shiva tells Obama. “My regards to the family.”
* * *
So there I am, sitting on a black leather couch in the Bharani Studios control room. At the console with the sound engineer, the director Amudhan asks to see Obama’s lines. “We can enhance it,” the director says, unimpressed with what they have so far.
“Shiva, please take up this assignment,” he suggests, pencil in hand.
I have to object. “He wouldn’t say assignment.”
“Okay. Job, project, assignment, operation, something. Only you can kill Pan Parag Ravi and Swarnakka. Please do this for world peace.”
“He won’t say that,” I blurt out again.
“World peace is very flat. No one actually says world peace. Beauty pageants talk about world peace. It’s not a smart thing, to say that way.”
“Or,” the director proposes, “we’ll say ‘The people of America are counting on you.’ There’s no connection. It’ll be funny.”
I give in.
“When you say Pan Parag Ravi, you’ll have to exaggerate your accent, you’ll have to make it really Yankee Doodle,” Amudhan tells me.
“Roll your Rs more. R-r-avi.”
I’m perplexed. “He wouldn’t roll. We don’t roll.”
“That’s okay. We’ll exaggerate it. That’s the funny bit. R-r-ravi . . . That’s how people would think Americans talk.”
After a few minutes, we agree on what to say. “Let’s go for it,” the director says.
“Just like that?” I ask nervously. “You don’t want me to practice or anything?”
“I’m sure you’ll get it the first time,” he assures. “The second” — he snaps his fingers — “you see Obama on the screen, start talking. We’ll give it a shot, let’s see how it sounds.”
I head through the heavy steel doors into the recording booth. “He speaks more pompously than Obama even,” someone murmurs as I leave the room.
“See this,” the director says to him, pointing out my audio recorder still lying on top of the recording console. “You shouldn’t have said that just now.”
* * *
How do you prepare to assume the voice of anyone else, let alone an American president? Say you’re small, awkward, and clumsy, like me. Say you’ve always been teased about your supposedly foreign accents—Moroccan, French Canadian, Cambodian, South African, always winding up as though you were pretending to be an Indian.
I’d downloaded Obama’s 2008 victory speech onto my iPod that morning. I’d listened again and again on the ride over to Bharani Studios, hoping that the driver couldn’t hear me quietly try out a tenor, depth, and cadence of voice so unlike my own.
Through the double steel doors now into the recording booth, I stand behind a corner podium and mike, facing a large image of the faux-presidential silhouette. It doesn’t help that the image looks nothing like Obama. It doesn’t help that the actor playing Shiva also walks into the control room to lounge on the couch, just before the first take.
But when the recording begins, there is little time to fret, so little, in fact, that I miss my first cue. From then on, there’s no chance to think of anything else but getting the lines right, modulating their speed to match the length of the shot.
“It sounds like me, not like Obama!” I can’t help but blurt out.
“Perfect,” the director said after just a couple takes, when the sound engineer plays the recording. I’m alarmed. “It sounds like me, not like Obama!” I can’t help but blurt out. But all that matters for the film is that I sound American.
There are a few more adjustments. Obama throws in a Tamil-language plea to Mr. Shiva: Americave ungala than nambirku, All of America is counting on you. There are laughs and claps as I rehearse this line with an American twang. Someone suggests another line about Rambo and Schwarzenegger, but luckily, this last idea falls flat.
On my take once more, there is little left to do now but adjust the recording levels. When I step back into the control room, the director is already thinking ahead to dubbing voices for the next scene. Smiling, he offers to help me get a dubbing artiste union card. “You’ve got a career waiting for you here.”
* * *
Sound in Indian cinema is rarely recorded on location at the same time that visual images are shot. Human voices are matched instead to speaking faces in the environment of the dubbing studio. There are nearly two thousand men and women registered with the dubbing artistes union in Chennai. Some are screen actors who join the union to assert the right to project their own voice onscreen. But most are specialists in oral performance, recruited by a “dubbing agent” to speak on behalf of bodies other than their own.
A few months later, on the grounds of another film studio complex close to Bharani Studios, I meet K. Vinayagamoorthy, dubbing agent for Tamil Padam. He reminds me that films are still known in Tamil as pesum padam, “talking pictures.” Echoing modern Tamil theories of speech, Vinayagamoorthy insists that voice alone gives uyir — life — to film.
Films are still known in Tamil as pesum padam, “talking pictures”
We step into a modest canteen on the studio grounds to talk more about these ideas. For the dubbing agent, cinema demands two kinds of action: “acting in the light” and “acting in the dark,” which his dubbing artistes perform. “This work is creative, sir,” he insists. There is, for example, the challenge of “lip,” that is, the visual movement of lips already recorded by the camera, for which the dubbing artiste must improvise a closely matching stream of words.
Back outside the canteen, we meet a couple of senior dubbing artistes who have dropped by the studio, looking for work. With them, my play for solidarity failed. One repeats my Tamil Obama line—Americave ungala than nambirku—back to me in a faux-American accent, making it known that I could dub this voice only because it accompanied a static presidential silhouette: there was no visible “lip.”
The dubbing agent nevertheless enters my contact details onto his Nokia phone. He takes a photograph of my face, as if to fix a single person to the name and number the screen would call up. Nowhere else in India have I encountered this gesture, one that seems yet again to acknowledge the power of voice to conjure unexpected lives.
* * *
There was a young bespectacled woman at the mike when I walked into Bharani Studios that first morning. She was asked to scream as if she were the woman giving birth under a thatched roof in the opening scene of Tamil Padam.
The director found her too consistently pained on the first take. “A little buildup is needed,” he’d said, “as though the sound is rising.” I listened as the pitch of her voice kept peaking and quavering in visceral tension until the director was satisfied. “It’s over, dear, thank you,” he told her, and she was free to leave.
The dubbing artiste’s name was Shaji. We meet one evening at her own small recording studio on a narrow lane west of Bharani Studios, the name of the enterprise painted in English block letters on the blue steel door: “Sound in Silence.”
Shaji tells me that she is the niece of a screen actress, and that she’d grown up quietly acting out her aunt’s roles as she watched her from a distance. We talk about the work she’s been doing herself, dubbing continuously for films, television serials, cartoons, and other media in Chennai for the past several years.
“Our own lives will be forgotten,” Shaji says. “When we see the screen, we become that. Until now, I am Shaji. Then I am Kavita. Then I am Sunitha.”
Listening to her speak, I begin to see how voice can claim its own existence, its own life, independent of body and identity. “Even my own mother can’t identify my voice,” Shaji added. “My voice will be telecast, and she won’t know.”
Her mother, it seems, would marvel at times, “Where did your voice go? It was nothing like your voice, girl. Don’t lie. Was it you that spoke?”
* * *
The film, Tamil Padam, is a massive hit. I can hear nine hundred bodies erupt in a roar of enthusiasm when a trailer for the film plays on a 70mm screen at Chennai’s Sangam Theatre one afternoon in 2010.
Sixty-two seconds into the two-minute trailer, my lines resound through that cavernous hall: “Mr. Shiva, you gotta do this job. Only you can kill Pan Parag Ravi and Swarnakka. Americave ungalai than nambirku.”
There I am, beaming in that dark space, but there is something unsettling in this pleasure, for I can’t claim this voice as my own. It sounds like me. But so unlike the shouts and whistles erupting loudly here and there in that packed cinema hall, this voice echoes from everywhere at once. It does things I clearly can’t do. And then it’s suddenly gone.
Something else happens in Los Angeles, when the film screens there a few months later. For my mother, everything always seems to come back to her children. Hearing my voice, she sees me in that presidential silhouette onscreen.
“That’s my son!” she shouts into the space of the theater, as those around her shift uneasily in their seats.
* * *
Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India, and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India, which he wrote with his grandfather.