Dreaming Of Words
9 Jul 2022
Njattyela Sreedharan, P. K. Pokker, K.P. Mohanan
The documentary Dreaming Of Words by producer/director Nandan brings us the story of Indian visionary Njattyela Sreedharan. Born in 1938 in Kerala, a Malayalam speaking region, Sreedharan didn't do well in school and had to drop out after failing the 4th grade. He got himself a job in the local beedi factory (beedi being a type of small, thin cigarette), much like all the other school leavers regardless of how long they had studied, and that was to be his lot in life.
Somewhere along the way though, Sreedharan had himself a bit of an idea. Through his own reading and personal curiosity, he recognised that even though certain people from certain regions would only speak or read in one of the Dravidian languages (Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu), by looking through different publications one could notice a similarity in some of the words. He thought that it might be easier for people to talk to each other, share ideas and culture, and come together if only they were made aware of the similarities and differences in their regional languages and had a guide, or a lexicon, to help them to do this.
So this is what he set about compiling. None of the regional universities, each teaching through their own regional language, had thought to collaborate to create such a universal, unique and useful document, and no other scholar had ever attempted such a large and daunting task – not even to make a name for himself. So, scrabbling about here and there, collecting journals and periodicals, watching films and television, and even collating jokes and recipes, Sreedharan began putting together his list of comparable words from each of the four languages.
Sreedharan travelled to different regions and spoke to as many different people as he could, from scholars to housewives, to keep his list growing and growing. Twenty-five years later he finally felt that he had a comprehensive enough document to call it a dictionary, comparing words from different languages which had never been seen together before on a page, and he tried to get it published. This is where we pick up the story.
Now an old man, Sreedharan tells the camera his tale. Most of the documentary is populated by his interview and he comes across as an engaging and charismatic figure. He tells his stories and anecdotes about how he formed his idea and set about achieving his goal and he laughs and smiles as he does so. Some of his tales do tend to ramble a little, and they're not always the most relevant, but they do help us to get the idea that Sreedharan was just a normal guy with a big idea, trying to do something that was greater than himself.
Other notable figures pop up from time to time to give their side of the story on how they helped (or hindered) Sreedharan on his journey – from publishers, to university lecturers, to religious leaders – sometimes telling the exact same stories, using almost the exact same words, and revealing the feeling of nobility in Sreedharan's task. This though, along with a few establishing shots and street scenes, makes up the entirety of the documentary. There is some really nice music added in there from composer Arun Alat, which is reminiscent of Thomas Newman and keeps things light, bright and breezy as though taking us on a journey. For the most part though, the documentary remains fairly flat.
As of today, Sreedharan has only succeeded in having part of his dictionary published and is still fighting against intellectual snobbery as well as logistical complications to get the manuscript printed in full. Dreaming Of Words does an important job in highlighting this amazing achievement and shining a light on Sreedharan as the first man to have compiled such a document. In getting the word out perhaps this incredible man and his incredible lifelong mission will get the recognition they deserve, and maybe a backer can be found so that one day soon Sreedharan can see the fruits of his labour, given to the world, within his lifetime.