Portrait of a poet

Print edition : November 21, 2003

"TAMASO ma jyotir gamaya" (Lead me from darkness to light). The ancient precept is exemplified in the work of Narayan Gangaram Surve, the Marathi poet who transformed his deprived life into a triumph of the will. Drawing strength from the mean, bleak environment of urban, industrial Bombay (Mumbai), the abandoned foundling became a cult figure for his people.

Surve was lucky to be profiled by a film-maker who sees the documentary genre not as a flat record of reality, but as a work of art in itself. Arun Khopkar's portrait is of the man-in-his-verses, of the spirit that motivates him.

Darkness looms over the mill. A child is abandoned by his mother at its gates. He is picked up to be raised by a worker who gives the infant his name. The poet watches the drama and visualises his early life in the streets and slums of Mumbai, his university ("Majhe Vidyapeeth"), teeming with life and labour. He learns to respect both.

Thereafter, Khopkar has Surve meet Kishore Kadam, who will play the poet - as both character and spectator. When Kadam dons spectacles, Surve becomes the onlooker, watching the actor go through his experiences, his poetry. Since poetry and acting demand both self-assertion and looking at the self as the "Other", such role-playing adds layers to what we hear and see.

Kadam-Surve rambles into the now silent textile mills where he had worked to the rhythms of machines, was influenced by Marx, joined the workers' movement, swayed to revolutionary songs and wrote them himself. He recalls police harassment, his wife's fears, his growing grasp of the poetic medium, and relationship with other poets. (As a parallel, two young poets recite poems about their bonds with Surve.)

Two vignettes stand out - Surve teaching "My Mother" his own poem, in a school (he has educated himself to become a teacher). Its moving force is written on the young faces before him. Overhearing a sex worker dictating to a professional letter writer in the bazaar, he reacts in poignant verses.

The journey ends when Kadam removes his glasses. Alone now, in the night, the poet strikes his own flame - reciting verses to the "Other" in the theatre, and to himself.

The film grips in its concrete imagery - horses being shoed, rolling wheels, rising cranes, spinning yarn, tea cups in cafes, a bench on the roadside... The camera (Mrinal Desai) matches the tangible with the intangible. The script (Shanta Gokhale) is a labour of love, though the subtitled verses demand superfast reading from non-Marathi viewers. Finally, it is Surve himself, unassumingly assured, steel strong in frail age, who makes the film memorable.

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