Roos Gerritsen of the Netherlands chose Tamil marriages as a topic of her thesis for M.A. Anthropology and Visual Culture research.

The fascination for Bollywood is not confined to the youth in India alone, but an international phenomenon it would appear. For instance Roos Gerritsen of the Netherlands, a student of Visual Culture and Media Anthropology, was fascinated by Bollywood film industry.

This brought her to India to do research on the cinema. Then it occurred to her to go to Tamil Nadu for her research as it had a huge film industry. Since she did not know Tamil it had been difficult for her to talk to people and learn how the audience received the films or responded to them.

Perfect link to films

At this point someone told her about wedding videos. She decided to take the subject for her dissertation for MA, which in turn would become a perfect link to films, romance and media. Roos began her field work in Puducherry in 2002.

Wedding videos and albums were not restricted to any specific area, but as she did her research in only one place the focus naturally was on Tamil weddings, nevertheless many of the weddings were also of North Indians. “So in that sense I do not want to distinguish between North and South, but take the topic and theme as the main issue. This does not mean regional differences do not exist, they do of course.”

She was looking at the practice of adding romantic symbols in wedding videos of arranged marriages and what that signified about romance, the future, film etc. She spent two-and-a-half years on and off in India talking to people about personal life, romance, cinema and also visited photo studios where they would often display wedding photographs and discussed how they went about the videos. She chose Indian videos “because they show an exceptional combination of real footage and constructed images. I thought that was very special and therefore worthwhile investigating.”

From there the next step was research for Ph.D. and that would be something to do with cinema. Roos was already quite familiar with Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and the logical move was that she would continue her research in the same region. She did most of her research in Puducherry as she found it easier to meet people there. “I did do some work in Chennai too but it was rather difficult to talk to people there.”

Now and then her husband Karl Beelen helped her talk to people for her research. She chose her subject as fan clubs of movie stars and mainly of Rajnikanth.

Ph.D. research took her five-and-a-half years during which her focus was on young men and what images they used to negotiate with their heroes. They plant their own pictures on cut-outs, vinyl banners and hoardings showing their heroes. “I enjoyed talking to banner artists, not particularly the big and famous ones, but the small time ones more,” says Roos. She found that there was politics about banners, between politicians and fan clubs. Release of a new film of the hero is a big occasion for the fans.

“Doing abishekam to their hero on the banners seem to be to get visibility for themselves. On such occasions crowds gather, media reports, TV channels cover them.” “Fans are seen as doing everything the hero says, but later they begin to expect things from the hero, like getting into politics. Expectations differ from person to person, some do not want the hero to enter politics. Either way when their expectations are not fulfilled, they feel frustrated,” she adds.

Roos’ husband, Karl Beelen, is a specialist in urban design and he is mostly in Chennai. He is just completing his Ph.D. with focus on Europe. According to him, it is a myth that cities in the West are all well planned. There too cities have grown often haphazardly.

He is interested in learning how the city of Chennai works such as water supply, drainage system, etc. He gained some understanding as he went around with Roos.

“I came to India because of my fascination for the Bollywood film industry. I was interested in media anthropology and wanted to combine this by doing research on Indian film. I then thought of going to the south of India, and because Tamil Nadu had a huge film industry, I selected Tamil Nadu for my research. “Just doing audience reception research on film is not that easy especially if you do not speak the language well. So for my MA, someone mentioned the presence of wedding videos and it became a perfect link to film, romance and media. Than for the Ph. D, because of previous expertise, it was a logic step to do my Ph. D research in the same region.

“The wedding videos and albums were not limited to region per se but as I was doing my research in one place only, it naturally became a work on Tamil wedding videos.”