Poet Anvar Ali has made an absorbing documentary on Attoor Ravi Varma, one of the leading poets of modernism in Malayalam literature
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photos: Anvar Ali by Ratheesh Sundaram; Attoor Ravi Varma (seated) during a shoot. Anvar Ali is at centre, behind. Photo by Jiji Alphonse
In the documentary, 'Maruvili' ('Call from The Other Shore'), there is a video conference between a Tamil diaspora poet by the name of Cheran, who lives in Windsor, Canada, and another Tamil poet N. Sukumaran who is in a studio at Thrissur. They are reading Malayali poet Attoor Ravi Varma's poem on the troubles in Sri Lanka, called 'Maruvili', in Tamil and Malayalam.
Here are a few lines:
'When you walk along the Post Office Road,
You turn into a handful of blood.
A handful of blood spreads like palm,
and complains to me.
It screams to me,
It comes to catch me,
I tell them,
I am neither the trigger or the bullet'.
After Cheran recited the poem in Tamil, he said, “We never imagined that one day we as a people would be victims of a genocide. I also wrote poems on this, but the Attoor poem is too much. No Sri Lankan can write such a deeply-moving poem. Attoor wrote from the soul of a Sri Lankan. He is a great poet.”
This poem was written in 1989 when the Indian Peace-Keeping Force went to Sri Lanka. “Attoor questioned the passiveness of the Indian liberals, as well as the pseudo-Gandhians in India,” says the film's director Anvar Ali. “It is a poem of prophesy. Lakhs of Sri Lankan Tamils had been killed in the civil war. Those who are alive now are living like animals. There is no food in their colonies. Apart from the suppression of their history, the Tamil writers have been silenced.”
But Anvar has not been silenced. He is a well-known poet in Malayalam literature, who has been an ardent reader of Attoor's work for many years. “We don't have a culture of respecting major writers during their lifetime,” says Anvar. “In fact, the ones who become celebrities tend to be mediocre.”
So, there arose a desire in Anvar to make a documentary on the poet. But he was not sure whether Attoor would say yes since he tended to stay away from the mainstream as well as the media.
One day, in Thrissur, there was a literary meeting. Attoor, 84, a former teacher of Malayalam, had come early. So did Anvar. An intuition prompted Anvar to approach the poet. He said, “Sir, can I ask you something?”
“What is it?” said Attoor.
“Can a film be made on you?” said Anvar.
“Who is going to make it?” he said.
“I am,” said Anvar.
“Then make it,” said the senior poet.
“I felt so happy,” said Anvar.
Anvar re-read Attoor's poems many times, to get a deeper understanding. He did a lot of research. Thereafter, Anvar sent a synopsis to the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi. They have a project to document the lives of India's eminent writers. The Akademi accepted his proposal and provided the funds for making the film. Anvar worked on the script for more than a year before shooting began.
The 90-minute film is sincere, absorbing and respectful. It begins with Attoor sitting on the verandah of his house at dusk, with the lights switched on in the living room behind him. Suddenly, there is a power cut. In the darkness, Attoor launches into a poem called 'Adolescence', which deals with power cuts, and the ensuing silence of televisions and loudspeakers, as well as ‘the ancient song of cicadas tearing up the darkness’.
There are scenes in his village of Attoor, in Chennai where he spent a few years, and Pattambi where he worked as a teacher. There are conversations as well as poetry-reading sessions with critics like B. Rajeevan and KC Narayanan, as well as the poets VM Girirja, TP Rajeevan, PP Ramachandran, KR Tony, Kalpetta Narayanan, Anitha Thampi, and K. Satchidanandan.
In fact, Satchidanandan read a few lines from a poem, 'Feeling Cold', which he had dedicated to Attoor. Then young poets Manoj Kuroor, and Kuzhoor Wilson sang a poem by Atoor.
“Attoor's poems have an appeal across many generations,” says Anvar. Attoor himself explained the beauty of the art form. “The language of poetry is the language of our thought,” he says. “There is no language that is so close to one's inner language.”
Although Attoor has written less than 150 poems during his long career, they have been much appreciated. He has won the Sahitya Akademi for poetry as well as translation, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram as well as the Asaan Prize.
The down-to-earth Attoor co-operated very well during the shooting. In one scene, Tamil poet Salma sits on the railing of a verandah at Attoor's home, at Thrissur, while the poet is reclining on a cane armchair. Attoor had translated Salma's poems as well as one of her novels into Malayalam. Salma expressed her happiness to Attoor for doing this. Suddenly, Attoor said, “What is the reaction now to Sri Lankan writers like Cheran?” This question enabled Anvar to cut to the Cheran interview seamlessly.
The film has been screened in the competitive section of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival, at Thiruvananthapuram, and was a curtain-raiser at Thrissur's Vibgyor international film festival. It was also shown recently at the international literary festival, organised by People For Performing Arts And More, at Chengannur.
When asked whether he would make more films, Anvar says, “After 'Maruvili', my friends began calling me a film-maker, but I don't think so. I am a poet. I think verbally, and in the language of poetry.”
(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)