Dreaming of Words chronicles Njattyela Sreedharan’s two and a half-decade odyssey creating a dictionary. This isn’t any old dictionary. No, it is a tome connecting root etymologies across four Indian languages: Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu. Of course, such a long endeavor is thoroughly intertwined with the man’s life, so director Nandan gets the story of the dictionary and Sreedharan’s life. Is the ensuing documentary as impressive as its subject?
Sreedharan dropped out of school in the fourth grade, which was not atypical for children back then. He went on to work in a beedi factory (which is a traditional Indian mini-cigar, also written as bidi), and through his various careers, he encountered all four languages at one time or another. This, coupled with a few specific events, made Sreedharan notice the similarities between them all. Then something clicked inside of him, and he decides to trace the history of each word in each language.
To do this, Sreedharan consulted numerous experts, native speakers, and read several books. When the same word was used in the books, he would look for the context it was used in, and if similar, he wrote down the word. But, the multilingual dictionary is facing an uphill battle to be published, as people don’t see the value in it, though it seems rather obvious in my opinion, for whatever that is worth.
“…chronicles Njattyela Sreedharan’s two and a half-decade odyssey creating… a tome connecting root etymologies across four Indian languages…”
Everything about Dreaming of Words is engaging on face value. The trouble is Nandan’s direction or lack thereof. This film is the pure definition of point and shoot. At only an hour-long, aside from a few inserts of maps and the notes Sreedharan took, the film is comprised of profile shots or head-on views of the interviewee as they tell a story about the dictionary or their life (that leads up to their involvement with Sreedharan and the dictionary). It is all so dry that despite the subject matter, it is dull, even more so when considering that several points or stories are repeated once or twice.
Around halfway through, the documentary finally escapes the confines of any random four walls, as the viewer is shown a bit of town life via roads and food stands. But, that lasts some two minutes at best. After that hopeful, stylish reprieve, the movie goes back to staring at some bland walls with someone seated in front.
It is a darn shame that the film’s style is so boring, as the subject matter genuinely interests me. Growing up all over the world, the similarities between languages, and the differences, have long fascinated me. Plus, Sreedharan comes off as a sweet, down-to-earth guy who really just wants his dictionary to be published. Because of his humbleness and the enormity of his accomplishments, Dreaming of Words is not entirely without merit. But, on a technical level, the film fails to engage or keep the audience’s attention. The story is there, but the skill is not.
"…the pure definition of point and shoot."