The documentary Dreaming of Words provides a precious insight into the complex reality of contemporary India. What makes this modest interview-based film particularly outstanding is the calmness that provides a contrast to the turbulent times we live in today and also creates a suitable context for the film’s focus, that is, the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people. One person, actually.
The film is completely focussed on one man, Njattyela Sreedharan, «an extraordinary lexicographer» who dropped out of elementary school after the fourth grade, but who later created a multilingual dictionary connecting four Indian languages, Malayalam (45 million native speakers), Kannada (43 million native speakers), Tamil (75 million native speakers), and Telugu (82 million native speakers). Traveling across Kerala, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, and Andhra Pradesh, the states in southern India where people speak these languages and doing intensive research, Sreedharan spent twenty-five years making this unique dictionary.
India is one of those countries where the Covid-19 pandemic has had the strongest impact. It increased social frictions and raised tensions within its multiple political, social and cultural structures, resulting in the silencing of dissenting voices and academic freedom violations. Dreaming of Words does not address these controversies directly but the present-day struggles, as well as the drawbacks of its postcolonial history, clearly resonate throughout, starting with Mr. Sreedharan’s biography. He was born in 1938 in Thalassery, Kerala. Until the fourth grade, he was a student of a local junior basic school. After failing fourth grade, he quit school and started working at a factory producing cheap cigarettes, beedi. «In those days, after fourth or fifth grade most children used to end up working in beedi factories,» he explains. However, «that was a time when we used to read and discuss a lot of books and newspapers at beedi factories. Such an environment inspired me to read and learn more.» He was a member of a children’s organisation that also sparked his desire to learn and after he passed an examination, got a job at the Public Works Department. As a secretary of a children’s organisation, inspired by the fact that «in my locality, most people didn’t have proper education,» he set up a night school and started teaching children. He also joined the communist party and went to prison three times. He has since written and published a story about prison life.
Dreaming of Words provides a precious insight into the complex reality of contemporary India.
A love for letters
Njattyela Sreedharan has been writing for various newspapers and magazines throughout his life, and it was his love for books that motivated his lexicographic endeavour, he says. «I’ve read a lot of books about the Malayalam language. None of these books clearly discuss the similarities and dissimilarities between these Dravidian languages. I felt this lack in Malayalam literature and that motivated me to do this work.» But even more important than the books was his love for other people, I believe, his desire to understand them, to be close to them. Beedi factories had Tamil newspapers along with Malayalam ones, that is how he got the opportunity to learn Tamil. He also remembers «a barbershop near the company where I worked. The owner was Aaruchami. He was the first one to teach me Tamil.» It is this love for other people that underlies the lexicographic methods that he meticulously describes in this documentary. It is this love that runs through the ways he gathered information and that pervades people who provided information to him.
The decision to learn a foreign language is, to me, an act of friendship, a great writer has said. Several experts interviewed in the Dreaming of Words explain this same feeling with various words and contexts. «In a word, there ’s actually a whole world,» says Dr. P.K. Pokker, former director of Kerala Language Institute. We always consider other people, other languages, and other states as «outsiders». Knowing languages can help us live in peace with our neighbours. The multicultural splendour of India, for many the single most fascinating feature of the country, thrives through their different languages too. There are more than twenty official languages – all Indian languages. «That is India’s greatest strength and a matter of pride. This is what we call polyphony. This is what is meant by the diversity in Indian culture.»
The film’s director, Nandan, is a film professional who participated in productions of several films, in several roles, from second unit director to writer and producer. In 2017, he wrote and directed a short film Breath and Dreaming of Words is his first documentary. The film was partly crowdfunded and Nandan self-financed the rest. His biography has a lot in common with Njattyela Sreedharan. Given the obstacles Sreedharan had to face in his attempts to publish the dictionary, the director’s empathy for the lexicographer deserves particular praise. I will not reveal these obstacles (go see the film instead) but I’m glad I can share the good news, that is, Njattyela Sreedharan’s multilingual dictionary has finally been published on November 1st, 2020.
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