The filming of poetry

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Moving image: Malati Maitreyi playing pallanguzhi with her daughter Tabitha.
Moving image: Malati Maitreyi playing pallanguzhi with her daughter Tabitha.


This is a recommended viewing for all those who aspire to make films on writers and is a good introduction to the contemporary Tamil literary scene.

SheWrite, colour, 55 minutes, Tamil/ English. Direction: Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar. Music: L.Vaidyanathan. Camera: K.P. Jayashankar. Sound: Elangovan. HOW do you film poetry? What kind of screen visuals can support the lines of a poem?How do you marry the medium of print and film? Two Mumbai-based filmmakers have taken on this challenge and have successfully demonstrated how it can be done. Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar have made a short film titled "SheWrite", on four young Tamil poets, all women. Women poets have been part of Tamil literary history from the earliest times. Kakaipadini lived and wrote during the Sangam age and her works form part of Akananooru anthology. The much-quoted Avvaiyar's poems are also there. The subject of this film, the four poets, Salma, Kutti Revathi, Sugirdharani and Malati Maitri, have been writing for the past five years and have been published in Tamil literary magazines such as Kalachuvadu, Uyirmai and Puthiya Parvai. Winning critical acclaim, they have been translated widely.

Women and words

When Kutti Revathi, the youngest of them all, brought out her second collection of poems in 2001, she titled it Mulaigal (Breasts). This provoked anger and criticism from some male poets. Obscene calls and threats were directed against the poet. Meanwhile more women poets began writing about the female body. One enraged senior male poet said that if he comes across any one of them, he would slap her. In a TV interview, a writer of film songs said that these writers should be burnt alive. The women point out that when men write bawdy songs or erotic poetry there is no protest. But if a woman writes such lines there is outrage against them. One of the four poets points to the works of the medieval poet Andal and says that erotic poetry is not new to Tamil. I recall that when Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) started publishing her short stories in the 1970s, she was subjected to similar mean sniping. Now the poets have formed a forum called Anangu (Woman) to meet patriarchal opposition to their works. One of the poets sued the songwriter and extracted an apology. A report of this controversy appeared in a weekly tabloid and it attracted the attention of the two filmmakers. They packed their gear, caught the next flight and made the film in just 10 days.The film is neatly structured into four parts, one for each poet. Through interviews, images, off-screen voices and titles cards, the filmmakers make their point powerfully. With a hand-held camera and available light, they create a world of cinema verite in which the lines of the poets come alive. Images of teashop, flower vendors, temples, panwallas, rain-drenched streets and rice fields capture the ambience of Tamil Nadu effectively. Some of the visuals created by the filmmakers, such as the three red capsicums, merge imperceptibly with the lines of the poems. The poets are shown in their own surroundings, Salma in a village near Tiruchi, Sugirdharani in Ranipet, Kutti Revathi in Chennai and Malati Maitreyi in Pondicherry. One of the most endearing images of the film is Malati Maitreyi playing pallanguzhi with her daughter Tabitha. A very fine balance is maintained between the images and the lines of the poem recited by the off-screen voice. An additional dimension of the poets that adds to the film is that Salma, the village panchayat president, is a Muslim and Sugirdharani, the school teacher is a dalit. They both discuss these identities on the screen.The soundscape of the film is another strong point. Music by L.Vaidyanathan comes in unobtrusively and enhances the quality of the images. Care has been taken by him that the bars of his music do not overwhelm the visuals. Other sounds have been imaginatively incorporated to enliven the scenes, such as the muezzin's call from the mosque. Preetham Chakaravarthy reads the poems with empathy. When I screened this film for a group of university students in a Southern university in the United States recently, the reaction was electric. The sequence that follows Salma's talk about her marriage — two puppets, a male and a female, swirling in the washing machine — attracted notice. This and the conversation between Sugirdharani and her mother on marriage, drew a lot of questions.This is a recommended viewing for all those who aspire to make films on writers and is a good introduction to the contemporary Tamil literary scene. Here is the poem of Kutti Revathi that started the controversy.BreastsBreasts are bubbles, rising
In wet marshlands
I wondrously watched — and guarded —
Their gradual swell and blooming
At the edges of my youth's season
Saying nothing to anyone else,
They sing along
With me alone, always:
Of Love,
To the nurseries of my turning seasons,
They never once failed or forgot
To bring arousal
During penance, they swell, as if straining
To break free; and in the fierce tug of lust,
They soar, recalling the ecstasy of music
From the crush of embrace, they distil
The essence of love; and in the shock
Of childbirth, milk from coursing blood
Like two teardrops from an unfulfilled love
That cannot ever be wiped away,
They well up, as if in grief, and spill over.

(Translated by N.Kalyan Raman)



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