A Sculpture of Ashes—Liner Notes On A Modern, Cinephilic Tragedy

by Mahesh S & Anuj Malhotra


The cleaning schedule as mandated by the official guidelines of the Indian Railways states that each compartment be thoroughly checked, emptied and then deloused after a single use. This is to say: no accidental inheritance must transpire upon the premises of the train. One should however forge a relationship of conscious caution with a rulebook: allow it to provide you comfort, but do not expect that it will be followed. When I boarded the Nellai Express early in the morning of 16 June 2019 to journey from Neyveli to Chennai along the eastern stitch of the Indian peninsula, I was only marginally surprised to find a thick diary, of the corner-stationery variety, lying atop the brief table next to my berth. Someone had also left behind a half-eaten packet of salted almonds. 

There is eroticism intrinsic to the train bogey—as there is to the boarding lounge of the airport or to the area under a flyover—for these are odd inbetween spaces unhinged from the moral or sociological codes that prevail in the larger territory they swim in. The diary compelled me to open it and I am not coy.

The lady in front of me slid the naked soles of her feet under the state-issued bedsheet. The tubelight continued to illuminate the mustard oil stains smudged across the opening page of the tome—a primitive pattern, a psychological test; the passcode to this sculpture of ashes.      


Thiruvanmiyur beach, late evening. It was almost empty. Mohan introduced me to Sajay. We sat on the sand and discussed odd things, older Tamil films and empty theatres mostly. Sajay mentioned that he and his friend once started walking around the city one evening and kept going. They didn’t stop until it was the next morning. The walk awakened the nomad in him. He Is going to go longer this time. 

Found green, broken glass pieces in my pocket this morning.

Share-autos. Rectangular boxes in motion. So much better than an auto or a bus. I peer into people who sit opposite me and yet do not come off as intrusive. Horizontal comp. Three or four people, different poses, people stepping in and out. Do the seats become empty in the afternoon?

An older lady with a red saree. A big flower basket on her lap. Others scrunched for space around her. A man wearing a khaki-coloured shirt, an exquisite nose picker and a kid with a big T-shirt.


I can try to feign disinterest— journalists often affect a vulgar omniknowledge—since the writer of the diary was hardly atypical. There was however a new naivete to him that I found endearing. I must also acknowledge that there is perverse pleasure to be derived from reading a ground-level report of the history of film. How else can one explain the enduring success of gossip columns, Reddit forums, trade journals, scandal rags and making-of videos? 

At any rate, it is an open secret that the corridors of Kollywood are thronged by young men—the benefactors of the industry’s long-standing patrilineal tradition—hoping to enlist themselves in the extant canon. Our anonymous protagonist—let’s call him A—is not very different: an abbreviation at best in a city doused in them.       

Met Mr. M today at last. Slightly balding, grey shirt, not too ironed, wrinkles abound. Told him I wanted to see his short film. “Next time pakka”, he said. Mirror and Solaris, double bill on the terrace through the night. He is going to start a fan club for Tarkovsky in Chennai. ‘Who is going to be there?’, I wondered. There are so many of us here, he proclaimed. At least 5 per DVD shop, and there are at least 20 shops in the city.

Magic Blue Entertainment (P) Ltd
April 2008: Rs. 1000
May 2008: Rs.2000
June 2008: Rs.4000
July 2008: Rs.6000
August 2008: Rs.7500

That bastard could have paid me at least Rs.5000 to begin with instead of doling out these increments. I should make bold and ask him for the P2, at least for the weekend. Anbu could do the edit. Maybe a short film by the end of this year.

Hate sleeping on the edit floor. Anbu turns up the A/C too much and my back is aching from the 40-hour marathon edit. I can’t look at a timeline anymore.

Saw M’s film yesterday. Exciting stuff! Totally worth the hype. An almost naked man running through the streets of Chennai from dawn to dusk. What a daring proposition! Shot from bikes, autos, and cars. So much action and energy like a ‘kuthu’ song but in a completely different manner. I’d love to work with him but he won’t agree ‘Too many assistants, not enough directors!’

First, we went around Porur like crazy shooting videos of empty plots and barren grounds. Sweating in puddles. Rising heat from the tar. Then Vivek bailed on us as usual in the first half and when he came back later, he flat out refused to lift the lights. Dhamu was straight up outraged. I thought he might hit him with a tripod or something. If it wasn’t for the client, there would have been a fistfight for sure. I almost want them to have a go at each other but not during the shoot at least. Any other time is fine with me. Break some bones. We will know how it sounds for foley.

Had a sobering meeting with M yesterday. ‘Where is your film, where is your film?’ That’s all he asked. 

The footage is just crap, and I really can’t bring myself to edit it. Forget showing it to M or anybody else. Dhamu is a pain to work with. I really try to make him understand but his constant undermining really pushes me. Everything is not about continuity. Vivek was right. He is always panning, like it’s some sort of sports coverage. I have to start all over and find somebody good this time around.


If you were to walk past an open window in the streets of Mylapore in 2009, there is a chance that you may have gathered the waft of a very specific television jingle. Those times were different; you had to be there. The internet had finally entrenched itself in public consciousness; torrents were abundant on pirate sites; the film society saw a revival; there were home-video labels and ‘world cinema’; there were online film criticism magazines run by hopeful young people; the cameras were cheap and there was ‘passion for cinema’. There were blogs written by filmmakers whose names one had only read on posters at the neighbourhood multiplex, but now, you could comment on their post and they would respond. If you were lucky, they would let you be their assistant as well. 

When Naalaya Iyakkunar (‘Tomorrow’s Filmmaker’, a short-film contest masquerading as a TV show) premiered in the summer of 2009, Chennai was abuzz with new energy: scores of men occupied tables in chains of cafes and embarked upon a historical accumulation of ‘concepts’, ‘ideas’, ‘stories’, etc. Their hermetic empire had its own totemic currency: references to obscure films, throwaway mentions, second-hand brags—cinephilia as the refuge of the otherwise adrift. This was a world of immense grifters and hustlers—a universe rendered through a vile centrifugal surge: hang on or get flung off.

Testosterone seeped into the soil to turn it black and the atmosphere threatened to vortex into a firestorm of fervour, terror, threat, fever, hope and paranoia—the walls of the ‘industry’ had begun to melt and the bandits were afoot.

Angelopoulos passed away.

M held a mourning for him and even managed to get hold of a screening theatre.

There were 10 of us. We watched Landscapes in the Mist.

3 idlis, one parotta and an omelet for dinner.

M didn’t eat.

Soodhu Kavvum, evening show, Kamala theater.

They pulled it off. A dark comedy in Tamil Nadu, or was it? Who cares, everybody laughed their heads off. The speakers were off, and couldn’t hear a thing for most part. I laughed along too. Wonder what M thought about it. Is this the movie he was talking about?

Almost felt like this movie arrived in the theatres fated to be a rollicking hit. I walked my way back and I could hear the laughs echoing in my ear.

Canon Mark III.
Body: Rs.3500
16-35 mm, 70-200 mm, 50 mm Carl Zeiss : Rs.2500

Surya’s promised to rent me the whole package with a monfrotto for 5k. Can I shoot everything in two days?

M looked a little on edge yesterday. Somebody in Kodambakkam did what Herzog has been saying for years. Steal a camera. Rental guys will hound us for proof and a ton of guarantee. 

M seemed happy about the news.

Camera found with the bag in a bus stand on a Wednesday morning.

A conscientious bus conductor returned it. He thought it was a bomb.


There are no full stops anymore.


Saw the footage shot with the stolen camera. A regular love story gone bad with lots of shots inside a paper recycling unit. I liked the location though. Piles and piles of paper wilting away.

Everybody has a copy of the footage now. A hundred films can now be made with this. Only if somebody would edit it.


The short film exercise has become such a serpent. Forever waiting for the camera and actors! This was to be a weekend shoot, and now it has sprawled on for months.

I like some of the stuff that’s been made. Vivek thought it looked good too. Maybe, I could try to crowdfund the rest.


Fever in the middle of summer. Had milk and rice. Tried to watch ‘Magic in the Moonlight’. My eyes burn.


…the paint comes off the illusion with despairing steadiness. The nucleus of the mainstream ‘industry’ is encircled by orbits of gruesome power, fantastic cliques and tribal coagulation. This is more so the case with Kollywood, a system laden with immense complications of caste, lineage and political ideology. In circumstances less ordinary, these by themselves are enough to deter someone like A, but there is also the tyranny of technology to contend with: around 2010 especially, an obsession began to surge within the industry of employing (the then) high-end DSLRs to shoot films. This tendency towards an early adoption of digital technology is not anomalous either. The state is rife with dabblers in the rooms of the engineering college hostel—acolytes who try to invent distinct bonanzas: films laden with tacky effects, song remixes, complex composites, digital art, NFTs, livestreams and torrent trackers. 

While the intention with which these cameras were first adopted was in line with the mission stated on the packaging—‘to democratise filmmaking’—they began to bevel the existing fault lines between the so-called ‘professional’ image and the thus decried ‘amateur’ variation. This hierarchy induced in the national cinema a distinct standardisation and we live now inside a maze of a thousand mirrors. 

Within this landfill of facsimiles, mimicry extends not merely to the ‘look’ of the image or its general finish, but also to the performative gesture, the line of dialogue, the mannerism and the brutishness it depicted within it—here, one may discern the genesis of the Instagram reel or the dubsmash or the Tiktok video, forms that are founded upon the approximation of ‘professional’ produce by a community of committed amateurs.  

Over time, the ‘industry’ would consolidate this refinement to an extent that criticism would have to invent vocabulary to dismiss any anti-image that did not fit within the industry’s definition of ‘good’: they called it amateur, indie, low-budget, grounded, outdated or gritty—an image not from the city, but from its pastoral peripheries.

Even A would have started to despair.

Raja broke his femur bone. Six months till he can walk normally again. His pain has subsided but without crutches, he can’t take two steps. This is a cursed film!

Started working on a new script. 13 pages done.

Exhilarating idea after a night of feverish thinking. I’m alive at last! We won’t wait 4 months for Raja, we won’t even wait one more week. We will shoot this weekend with him with his broken leg. Fiction is real. Real is fiction. My love letter to Kiarostami.

Amma’s knee is hurting again. It is painful to see Dad’s indifference even now. I’ll go home next week before shooting starts again. Good time to get out of this heat or will it rain here when I’m gone?

Shooting done. I will not shoot a second of this anymore. Folders and folders of it. A short film exercise that went from documentary to fiction to something I can’t quite grasp.

This house owner is an A-grade annoyance. I’ll have to start looking at OYO rooms now. It is so unnerving to have sex in this house with this guy always snooping around. The walls are not thin but he has his ears trained to detect the slightest tinglings of pleasure and to pour water on them.

Had a long conversation with Amma. If she is going to stay with me then I’ll have to stop getting Deepa here.

Spent the weekend trying to write content ideas for the client. Shooting 20 videos of 30 secs each this week. This is going to be a marathon cut and paste session with constant client sneering. Should I stop resisting them and instead join them? That would make everybody happy and maybe even me less miserable. Maybe a good ploy to get married.

M has disappeared without leaving a trace. Nobody knows where he went. His phone, unreachable.

I remember sitting with him for dinner, eating biryani in his room, re-watching Vertigo on his laptop. When will he return the book that I borrowed from Deepa? I thought his meeting with the producers went well. 

Somebody saw M in a library. His face is buried inside a book. When they called his name, he slipped between the aisles and disappeared. He was wearing a T-shirt. Very uncharacteristic of him.

It is clear that A doesn’t merely see M or look at him—he has visions of him. In my own career, I have witnessed the hands of young acolytes tremble as they approached their screen-idols in person (accounts continue to emerge of the religious fervour that sweeps the site of the theatre when a new blockbuster releases; I wonder if A too danced in front of the screen or threw coins at it). YouTube is awash with ‘reaction videos of latest releases from Chennai theatres’—an odd fetishisation of the hysteria endemic to a particular part of the world—boys’ dramatic troupes lost in eulogy to their mad masters.

A lot of the young men parry in the dark for father figures who can upholster their yearning and train them in the machine of the world. The sociological basis for this tradition is too complex for casual commentary, but I could venture and say that it is how caste is encoded in our world. We do not have mentors or teachers; instead, we have high priests and gurus. When a figure like A begins to invest in the symbol of M—as with the generation of gravatars in the comments’ section of those blog sites from years ago—he is only only hoping to find a branch to cling onto. He is tired of not belonging and the world outside is hostile. Perhaps M can let him in, perhaps in him he will find his quarter.           

Two films this year from the whole lot.

Uriyadi and Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. The films are okay. A couple of crores is not shoestring budget.

(To be honest, it is odd that it took the ‘industry’ this long to mount a wholesale appropriation of the alternative, but the ambush was inevitable. Around the early years of the last decade, a realisation began to permeate the conference rooms of the film production offices: the enemy was at the gates and an upheaval was coming up. A battery of young filmmakers who began as assistants within the industry or as short film producers had announced themselves and the audiences were getting younger. A sterilisation drive was commissioned to render the voices of these younger filmmakers banal—and more so, include their voices in the industry’s catalogue of products. As such, ‘independent film’ now became ‘Independent Film’, an offering (Product ID: 2125001) within the inventory of the film studio. They took the system of concentric orbits and dug a pretty moat around it.)            

They shot an entire film in a shared auto. Big WOW! They didn’t steal it from my subconscious. I literally told the whole town my idea.

Another M spotting. On the beach in the afternoon sun. He didn’t run this time around but just walked away with his pants all rolled up and knees wet. It took a while for the friend to realize that it may have been him and before they did, he vanished.

Gopu died. His legacy as the prop supplier will continue to live on. Not in the annals of history but in the hearts of several nobodies to whom he was always kind.

He left behind, among many things: A treasure chest, a Donald Duck and a Mickey Mouse costume, four guns and several worn-out wigs. Poetry spilled on the streets today but I am too tired.


I cannot entirely forego my responsibilities as a journalist. I remind myself that my work must constitute actual research, field visits, interviews, firsthand observation, gratuitous note taking, etc. When in Chennai, I did ask around to find out who Gopu the prop-seller may have been. A friend in the industry who specialises in behind-the-scenes coverage told me he was probably Gopalan N, a tailor who joined the film industry in the 1970s and graduated to leasing props. An art director got his assistant to hand me a visiting card (‘Nadaswaram Props and Art, ___________, 600007 ’) with an address embossed into its dirty matte. I took an auto there but when I reached, his son told me that he had decided to sell the shop and the plot around it since ‘…a swanky new tech store would come up here…’, and then sighed, almost as an epitaph, ‘My father was a nice person. A little old-fashioned, though. The kind of person a revolution would pass by.’

The film is over. I thought this would be a reason enough to celebrate but it feels like mourning. I don’t think I’ll watch anything for a few days.

First screening at LV Prasad today. Tepid response. Some really got it. Most others dozed off. I was tense the whole time, nails digging into the chair. Somehow many wanted to know what camera I used. 

I knew she wasn’t going to turn up and she didn’t.

Saw Maanagaram yesterday. Starting a YouTube channel to review films, old and new. Long format videos.

Maybe the only business worth doing in Cinema is the camera rental business. Going to re-edit the film one more time and then see how it plays before showing it to M.

Met M today after almost a year. He looked like somebody slapped the happiness out of him. It seemed like he was actually interested for the first time in talking about my life as opposed to discussing cinema. That felt weird for some reason. He was strangely persistent about me getting the right kind of water purifier. Don’t get RO, get UV, he said. They suck the nutrients out of water. Sure, but what about Mahendran and Mekas?

What about them? What about those icons of the yore? 

In the evening of that day,  A walked in front of the mirror in his house and discovered the first wrinkle on his forehead, the first strand of white hair, the first signs of pigmentation around his mouth—he was no longer young. And maybe, he was not all that special either.   

Gave a copy of my film to M. He promised to see it soon. Fingers crossed.

It just can’t be one of those days but it always is. Discovered a broken piece of glass in my parcel of tomato rice today. Grazed my tongue but glad I didn’t swallow it.

Threw the rest of the food away.

Even after all these years, an evening at the beach never fails to lift my spirits. There is just so much life out there. Every pocket, every ice cream seller, an island of experience. A multitude that no camera or cinema will ever be able to coalesce. Art tries to pull everything in but will always leave so much out. The rains are going to be here soon. WIll it flood this time around as well?

M saw the film and called me in. He had a thoughtful look about his face when he saw me.

We went through the scenes back and forth a couple of times. He remained firm in his insistence that it needed more work. I couldn’t have convinced him to like it. It is what it is but I also couldn’t see where he was coming from. Something about it having too many rhythms or the lack of it, in some places. He called it an erratic heartbeat. He did tell me that the work was honest.


If anyone is still interested, A never finished the diary. For various months after my chance discovery of his document, I was afflicted by intermittent pangs of curiosity: did he leave it behind on purpose? Did he intend for someone to discover it? Is this his way to mediate oblivion?

(There are a number of blank pages left. I guess he intended to write more in it, but who knows. Perhaps it is an index of who he no longer is.)

I have also wondered if he left it behind as a cautionary tale—a warning sign board for others like him headed into the city, engulfed by fever, aspirants to a myth. His writing seems to reveal that he was well-meaning and gentle, but of course, entirely hesitant. I would have liked to see the films he made. 

Can one bemoan him as a modern-day martyr? A cinema-tragic? I do not know but I think he had no chance from the beginning—if you cannot hustle, there is none. If you are not a certain type of a person, if you’re down with a lack of self worth, if you do not know certain people (say, H, F, or K), the ‘industry’ is a very difficult place. There is a lot of conversation around nepotism now, but instead of contemplating it as a radius of surnames and affiliations, it may be more useful to examine it as a system of values, attitudes and ideas that are fostered within this special radius of existence. I don’t know if A had these .    

Later, I left the diary behind with an art director I know and asked him to deposit it with one of his prop-vendors. He set his assistant upon the task and assured me that the diary is useful since, ‘…decay seems to have set upon it and directors love such things.’. I giggled to myself at this audacious prank: the ‘industry’ will feature forever in its yield a lament of its own ruin.   

Four reservoirs in the city have gone dry. Someone died today while fighting over water.

Anuj Malhotra is the founder of Lightcube, an acclaimed film collective, regularly touted as one of the leading resources for pioneering research and presentation of image-forms in the country. He also helped conceive the model for The Dhenuki Cinema Project, a multifaceted and versatile project that mobilizes populations in rural areas of the country through the medium of film. Anuj also publishes Umbra, the country’s only newspaper devoted to the study of alternative film in India, alongwith handling the curatorial duties for The Garga Archives, a digital museum dedicated to the life and work of B.D. Garga. His films have screened at various festivals and venues across the country and internationally. His work as a critic has been published in such prestigious publications as photogenie, Asian Film Archive, Woche Der Kritik, mubi, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Deep Focus Cinema, and cinea.be.

Mahesh S is a Bangalore-based self-taught artist dabbling with video, text, and photography. He has a background in research and brand strategy. He recently finished his first experimental documentary, entitled Tales from Building No. 37 and a photo-book based on the history, architecture and cultural memory of a government building in Bangalore. This project was supported by a grant under the India Foundation of the Arts (IFA).

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