Poet and director Anvar Ali’s documentary Maruvili (Call from The Other Shore) is by a poet and about a poet. Maruvili pays lavish homage to Attoor Ravi Varma, whom the director describes as “a poet’s poet”. Speaking to The Hindu, Ali describes the experience of making the film as “looking up at a huge tree from beneath it”. That in itself explains the unconditional reverence of this unusual biographical documentary. The film does not alienate viewers with heavy semantics, and we do not hear a single dissonant voice, even in friendly polemic. There are only paeans for the master.
At 84, Attoor Ravi Varma, named affectionately after the village of his birth, is the winner of several top honours, including the Sahitya Akademi for poetry as well as translation, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram and the Assan Prize. But it is his quiet modesty and old-world grace that makes us want to know more about the mild-faced gentleman we first see on a verandah, reciting his poem “Adolescence,” which tells us of lost yesterdays. Attoor describes the land he loves, the camera complementing his nostalgia with the simple beauty of paddy fields and reflecting his resignation to the ugly cement structures that have reared their heads in the name of civilisation.
An ensemble of writers, including critics B Rajeevan and KC Narayanan, poets VM Girirja, TP Rajeevan, PP Ramachandran, KR Tony, Kalpetta Narayanan, Anitha Thampi, and K Satchidanandan, takes us through the labyrinth of Attoor’s writings, sometimes reciting or chanting his poetry, at others, discussing their scope and social messages. Attoor is often present with those on whom he has made an impact, whether through his own writing in Malayalam or in his translations in Tamil. On two occasions, Attoor’s poetry is arrestingly performed by the actor Gopalan Adatt.
In a poem that shares its title with the film, Attoor’s poetry is literally called out from another shore – in a video conference between Sri Lankan writer Cheran in Canada and Tamil poet N Sukumaran in Kerala. The poem, read with passion by both, was written in 1989, at the time when Sri Lankan Tamils were massacred in the civil war while Indian liberals were shuffling their feet. It is a poem that cuts to the chase in its opening lines:
“When you walk along the Post Office Road, You turn into a handful of blood.”
The pictures are in the words themselves, and in the words are layers of suggestion. When we hear the haunting lines “For all the lands with its five hands (tributaries) Kaveri flows on the bosom of a century bygone,” and see pictures of garbage and plastic choking a river bed, it is not quite the same thing .
Attoor believes, “The language of poetry is the language of our thought. There is no language that is so close to one’s inner language.”
In a film of 90 minutes, where the soundtrack is almost entirely poetry and/or the discussion of it, viewers who rely on subtitles have to ignore their own “inner language”. Instead, they must perform several simultaneous tasks – tune out the soundtrack, read the translations on the screen and keep to the director’s pace and mapping of visuals, whether evocative or otherwise.
Quite independent of Attoor’s poetry, the visuals of Maruvili, which was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival, are riveting for the most. Attoor paints stunning enough pictures in his poetry without them being defined on screen.
As homage and a moving album of memories that record the contribution of a veteran, the film serves its purpose.