Wednesday, October 10, 2007

John Abraham (

Trained at the FTII, Pune John Abraham created a deep impact in Malayalam cinema with only four films in his credit in his short life span. His first film ‘Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile’ (1971) was considered by John himself as a worthless film. ‘Agraharathil Kazhuthai’ (1977) was made in Tamil and is considered his masterpiece. Through the tale of donkey, which strays into a village of orthodox Brahmins, John strikes at the roots of religious orthodoxy and had to face a stiff opposition from them. ‘Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal’ (1979) uses Christian and feudal symbols in the backdrop of Kuttanadu, John’s home land. When he attacked the traditionalists in his earlier film ‘Agraharathil Kazhutai’, in ‘Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal’, he attacked the feudal system and police atrocities during the feudal period. John constituted the Odessa Collective, aiming at production and exhibition of good cinema with active participation of the general public, without the intervention of market forces. Odessa's first film and John's last ‘Amma Ariyan’(1979) re-wrote all the conventions of filmmaking. They raised money for the film by traveling from village to village, beating drums and asking for contributions for the 'people's cinema'. He also took active part in street play movement. ‘Amma Ariyan’, made in a documentary format is embedded in the highly turbulent political era of Kerala.

John Abraham - Filmography

Koyna Nagar (1967) In English

Priya (1969) John's Diploma film at FTII, Pune, in Hindi

Hides and Strings (1969) In English

Vidhyarthigale Ithile Ithile 1971
(This Way Students)
John Abraham's first feature film, made during his stay in Madras as a group co-operative effort.
During a football match at school some schoolboy breaks the statue of the school's founder. Raju is held responsible for this. He is given two choices, either pay for the damage or face expulsion. The boys get together and earn the money by polishing boots, selling lottery tickets and so on. The school's principal gets impressed with this and the management decides to repair the statue with their own money and spend the money earned by the boys for an excursion. Shortly afterwards during another football match they break the statue again.
Direction: John Abraham
Screenplay: M Azad
Cast: Adoor Bhasi, Manorama, S V Ranga Rao, Jayabharati, S P Pillai
Cinematography: K Ramachandra Babu
Music: M B Srinivasan
Agraharathil Kazhuthai 1977
(Donkey in A Brahmin Village)
John's second film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai made in Tamil, is a hard hitting satire on the brahminical bigotry and superstition, where a donkey becomes the central character.
A donkey strays into a village dominated by the upper cast Brahmins. Prof Narayana Swamy decides to keep it at his house. He appoints a mute girl to look after the donkey. The entire village turns against the donkey and his caretaker. When the girl's stillborn baby is deposited outside a temple, the donkey is blamed and is killed.
After the death of the donkey some miracles start happening in the village. People start believing that it is the donkey that brought about all the miracles and starts worshipping the dead body of the donkey. The villagers give a ritual funeral to the donkey by burning it. In a symbolic end, fire spreads and engulfs the entire village. Only the professor and the girl survive.
Even though this film won a National award, Doordarshan was forced to cancel a scheduled a TV screening and the Tamil press ignored the film as the Brahmin bigots tried to have the film banned.
Direction & Co-Screenplay: John Abraham
Co-Screenplay: Venkat Swaminathan
Cast: M B Srinivasan, Swathi, Savitri, Raman Veeraraghavan
Cinematography: K Ramachandra Babu
Editing: Ravi
Music: M B Srinivasan
Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal - 1979
(Cruelties of Cheriyachan)
John, having deep knowledge in Marxist and Christian traditions, made his third film, Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal using Christian and feudal symbols in the backdrop of Kuttanadu, his home land. When he attacked the traditionalists in his earlier film Agraharathil Kazhutai, in Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal, he attacked the feudal system and police atrocities during the feudal period.
Cheriyachan, a landlord feels threatened by industrialisation and the leftist activities. But when he witnesses the police atrocities on poor peasants, feel of guilt engulfs him and he feels responsible for the guilt of his entire class. He is last seen up a coconut tree trying to keep away from the police. A peasant's movement against the feudal system also lies in the backdrop of the film.
Here, the feudal lord is shown as a frightened victim of history in contradiction to the normal characterisation as a stereotypical villain.
Direction & Screenplay: John Abraham
Cast: Adoor Bhsdi, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, Poornima Jayaram, Abraham Joseph, Venu
Cinematography: Madhu Ambat
Music: Johnson
Amma Ariyan - 1979
(Report to Mother)
The first film of the Odessa Collective and the last by John Abraham, Amma Ariyan was made as a people's film by the money obtained from the ordinary people of Kerala.
Purushan sets out for Delhi for his research, promising his mother to write to her wherever he is. The film is in the form of a letter written by Purushan to his mother. On his way he finds a dead body, which he later identifies as that of Hari's. Purushan decides to go Hari's house to inform his mother about her son's death. On his way he meets some of Hari's friends, and the character Hari in the film unfolds as the memories of these friends about him, mostly conflicting. They too join Hari in his journey. As they reach Hari's house, the small group that started the journey develops into a crowd of young men. Finally they inform Hari's mother about her son's death.
A complex film, Amma Ariyan is made in a documentary form interweaving fact and fiction. The political history of Kerala is narrated during the film occasionally and also John filmed actual leftist strikes for Amma Ariyan.
Direction & Screenplay: John Abraham
Cast: Joy Mathew, Maji Venkitesh, Nilambur Balan, Harinarayan
Cinematography: Venu
Editing: Beena
Music: Sunitha

BFI on Amma Ariyan

The docu-poetic film about the journey of a group of young men through Kerala, all somehow related to an unidentified corpse, also becomes a journey through the histories of the socioscapes depicted. As the film unfolds in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, Abraham relentlessly uses bodies and landscapes as media through whom a discourse on the search for the cinematic-political is visualised. Dislocations of points-of-view are effected through imaginative camerawork, a highly uneven relationship between image and soundtrack montage and multiple performance styles. Scenes denoting the present and the past resonate ambiguously against each other and are frequently interspersed with quasi-documentary footage. A highly complex commentary on the history of the relationships between the personal, the social and the political as evidenced from the state's radical political past, the film was made entirely on the basis of public funds backed by the state film corporation.

Amma Ariyan by Manuvilsan, Rajmohan

[Re-reading John Abraham's classic Amma Ariyan 17 years after its production, at a time when the foul smell of decaying 'political' movements become unbearable.]
Purushan decides to go to Delhi for his research. His mother sees him off with a condition that he should write to her wherever he is. During his journey, by chance he finds a dead body, which was familiar, but unidentifiable to him. Later he and his friends identifies it as Hari's, who committed suicide, and decide to travel to Kochi to inform Hari's mother about his death. During the course of journey this group of messengers become a crowd and finally informs Hari's mother about his death. This is how John Abraham's Amma Ariyan can be briefed. The film is in the form of a letter by Purushan to his mother.
Interpreting metaphors
The metaphors used by John in Amma Ariyan are powerful, but often obscure. The dead body, which Purushan witnessed by chance and later, brings together like-minded people to form a crowd requires to be interpreted. The other and perhaps the most important metaphor that needs interpretation is 'Mother'. Even though throughout the course of the film, each individual member joins the crowd after informing their respective mothers, two mothers stands out in the film. The film unfurls in the form of a letter to Purushan's mother who sees off her son by urging him to write letter to her, wherever he may be. The other mother, the mother of Hari who commits suicide is the destination of the crowd. While one among them is anxious to know about her son's journey through the torrid times, the other mother foresees her son's suicide, while almost all the mothers are seen worried about the youth of that time, succumbing into suicide. John's film starts with a mother's wish to know about her son and ends where another mother's dreams of her son burn down. The crowd that is formed for the mission of informing Hari's mother about his death too requires interpretation. The fate of this crowd after accomplishing their mission, which John left untold, would also be an interesting topic to be discussed. This article doesn't intent to be merely an appreciation of the aesthetics of the film. The main focus is on the three important metaphors pointed out, the dead body, mother and the crowd. It is also felt worth to discuss the relevance of this film even almost two decades after its production.
Perhaps no other films in Kerala could have been the topic of discussion, except for its content, as Amma Ariyan. The way the film was made, the way he collected the funds for it, arguments, counter-arguments, scandals and so many other clich├ęs were discussed extensively. But certain crucial questions were left unanswered. 'Who was informed?', 'What was informed?', 'Who informed?'. From an exterior view of the film, it can be said that 'Mother was informed', 'she was informed about her son's death' and 'the crowd informed her'.
Mothers of Hari, Purushan, Baletten and all the members of the crowd are shown in this film with considerable importance. As mother becomes a common metaphor in this film, we could term them together as Nation and the children of these mothers could be termed citizens. The family that houses the Nation and its citizens thus can be termed as the system. Often members of this system try to rebel and move out of it. The Nation desires to know about these members who walk out of the system, anxious to know what happened to them after their rebellious exit.
The crowd that sprouted around Hari's dead body, after identifying it takes up the mission of informing this death to his mother. When each individual members of the crowd identify their mission and later it becomes a collective mission, the crowd turns out to be a movement.
It is interesting to notice that the crowd that is formed for this mission never enquires about the reason behind Hari's suicide. The only reality before them is the fact that Hari is dead. The crowd identifies their mission as just passing on the information of Hari's death to his mother. But, by the end when the crowd reaches Hari's mother, we understand that she already knew or at least she was expecting this news at any time.
Who are these apolitical intellectuals?
Otto Rene Castillo's* famous words are quoted at a point during the course of the film:
'One day the apolitical intellectuals of my country will be interrogated by the simplest of our people. They will be asked what they did when their nation died out slowly, like a sweet fire small and alone...'
These words deliberately quoted in the film by John may be the essence of this film, which make this film relevant even today.
The formation of a class of apolitical intelligentsia in a democratic system is the biggest threat to the root of this system. Politics for democracy is synonymous to oxygen for life. When the philosophy of an intellectual turns out to be apolitical, his action results in the very destruction of a democratic system.
By the end of the film, just after the crowd informs Hari's mother about his death, the official messengers within the system, the police reach there and convey the same piece of information to the mother. The mother, the nation expects this tragic news at any moment about her rebellious child. But is that all the information that the mother expects from these messengers? Hari, the rebellious citizen, who walked out of the system, possibly to recast the system, might have committed suicide, accepting failure in his mission, or might have died like a brave soldier or his death, might even be a murder. The reason for this death, which the crowd failed to probe and find out, is politics in a system. The crowd that never bothered about this vital issue is not a movement capable to act as the backbone of a system but just a crowd of apolitical individuals. This crowd doesn't succeed in finding out the reasons for the decay of the system, but finally starts decaying themselves. It's not just such a mob that should emerge out of this system, but politically conscious movements. These movements are not destined to bear the burden of dead bodies of 'martyrs', who commits suicide. Their mission should be to probe into the reasons behind these suicides.
In the film, the mothers who react to the news of death of Hari are shown worried and sad about the youth moving towards self-destruction. The Nation too grieves the death of its citizen. In other words citizens themselves make the entity called the Nation, it's his duty to perpetuate the Nation. Hari's death may be a tiny isolated flame, but it has the potential to grow into an inferno, which would set ablaze the Nation itself. This alarming truth is seen repeatedly in History books. Hence the Nation desires to know about the reasons behind the decay of the system. But the apolitical intelligentsia, who never bothers to probe these reasons, one day, would definitely be questioned by the poorest of the poor. This quotation used by John Abraham could be a prophecy about that day, the day, which this crowd of apolitical intelligentsia would be questioned.
Should John be questioned?
The name, John Abraham was often used in Kerala during his lifetime for just to be rejected. Now, for us it is irrelevant to argue whether John was a prophet or just a lunatic. For us it is important to find out whether or not to question John as the director of the film 'Amma Ariyan', which puts forth very basic questions about the society that we represent. Some said that John here suggested a new movement at a period when all the ideological movements were seen decaying and spreading its dirty odour more and more day by day. Some others said that John hinted the meaninglessness of all movements by showing the police passing on the information effortlessly to the mother, while the crowd that kept aside all their jobs and became a movement and took a lot of effort to do the same. Even some people interpreted this film as the call for a people's movement as a parallel to the existing system. Doesn't it remind the good old story of four blind men trying to experience the shape of an elephant? Who among them could understand the real shape? Or was the reality something else?
A piece of art becomes noble when its importance extends from present to the future, when the artist turns out to be a prophet. John too was a prophet. He prophesied the pathetic spectacle of today, where apolitical crowds labelled 'political parties' join together in a procession carrying burdens of dead bodies termed 'martyrs', forgetting reasons and ideologies, believing that the petty knowledge they procured during this journey towards perdition as ultimate truths, never bothering about the real politics of this system, continuing this journey with mere the information of the death of a citizen to the Nation. It would also be interesting to find out the fate of the crowd after accomplishing their mission, which John left for our judgement. We understand that this crowd never dispersed after accomplishing their mission. These crowds found out more and more dead bodies like that of Hari's and are still continuing their procession carrying these burdens. It could even be concluded that a movement's birth itself coincides with the identification of a dead body. For this movement to gain momentum a crowd is formed. A dead body not only means that the individual is dead but also acts as a pointer towards number of truths, the ideas, dreams, aspirations and struggle the individual had undergone during his life time, which these crowds never try to understand.
Should John be questioned? Who have the right to question him?
Kahlil Gibran says: 'Lunacy is the first step towards unselfishness. Be insane and then tell us about what you see there inside that veil.'
John too does the same. His thoughts are becoming more and more important in this torrid period, when the death traps of globalisation wait for more and more Haris. Political parties of today have degraded to be just news agencies to report their death. The need of today is not death reports that attract more and more such crowds. The Nation would definitely get the news of the death of her citizen even without the help of this crowd. This news would evoke nothing more than a tear drop from the mother. The mother never understands that she too is jailed by the same rotten system, which made her son commit suicide.
Note - Otto Rene Castillo, born in 1936, was a Guatemalan revolutionary, a guerilla fighter, and a poet. Following the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the democratic Arbenz government, Castillo went into exile in El Salvador, where he met Roque Dalton and other writers who helped him publish his early works. When the dictator Armas died in 1957 he returned to Guatemala and in 1959 went to the German Democratic Republic to study, where he received a Masters degree. Castillo returned to Guatemala in 1964 and became active in the Workers Party, founded the Experimental Theater of the Capital City Municipality, and wrote and published numerous poems. That same year, he was arrested but managed to escape, going into exile once again, this time in Europe. Later that year he went back to Guatemala secretly and joined one of the armed guerilla movements operating in the Zacapa Mountains. In 1967, Castillo and other revolutionary fighters were captured; he, along with his comrades and some local campesinos, were brutally tortured and then burned alive.

A Tribute to Ritwik Ghatak by John Abraham

Ritwik Ghatak,
in partition, not physically of willingness-the country departed
Out of his outer consciousness - cosmic consciousness
none of his mistakes,
Reactions - natural reactions - reflections
Ritwik Ghatak,
refugee, unborn, unwanted, unbearable
penetrative towards the Victorian hangover
of the Tagorian corruption of thinking

Life was more important to him
than the words in praise of god,
the god of Victorian Tagorian thinking.

Hence, he was rejected from the Bengalian thinking
Ritwik Ghatak - the name doesn't suit
the hierarchic thinking of the Raynian Zamidarian thinking
Perhaps, the long echo of the forgotten factors
that becomes reminiscence of
the 'death of the salesman' or otherwise
the long columns and no more Chhabi Biswas,
Cardiac arrest is common.
The death of Ghatak is uncommon.

Nay, Ritwik Ghatak
I remember,
a tall man
his hands moving around my shoulders,
catching me with the feeling of nearness,
rather than imperialism-
the man who stands before mequestioning my manliness
loosing his hands to shake my handsin appreciation of manliness
recognizing each other-
abiding in each other
kicking on my an's and telling me
"Get up, awake shoot"
I remember, not with sentiments
with awakening proud, Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Daa,
let me call you Ritwik Daa,
I know that you are no more.
But I am, alive for you
Believe me.
When the seventh seal is opened
I will use my camera as my gun
and I am sure the echo of the sound
will reverberate in your bones,
and feed back to me for my inspiration.

Thank you Ritwik Daa,
I am thanking you
not with impotency and insipidity

Ritwik Daa,
I remember you,
when the words fails to criticize you,
Ritwik Daa,
eternally you are
in my brain
in my spirit and
in my Holy Ghost

A film with Johns Signature - Roby Kurian da US (source -, 20 August 2006)

I have always felt to compare John Abraham with Bunuel. As Bunuel is unknown to the main stream movie goers, John is a totally ignored figure in Indian cinema. He had the strong command over his medium as Bunuel had. The themes of his movies can more or less be compared to that of Bunuel's. John was a social critic and his movies had a great lot of humor.

I remember seeing his film "Agraharathil Kazhuthai" in a special screening organized by a film club. A Brahmin brings a small donkey to an agrahara. Agrahara is the place where a few Brahmin families reside jointly, with all their prayers and that sought of things. At first everyone seems to avoid it but at the end, it becomes a local deity to those villagers. In parallel to this story, there is another of a maid servant, who is been cheated and gives birth to a dead baby.

Many critics have argued that the Donkey symbolized the Pope and some said it portrayed the prime minister. I remember reading an interview with John in which he said, movie is not a medium of symbolism. Donkey just portrayed a donkey. If you say it is pope, or it's the Prime minister or its John himself, I won't say anything. What I meant is a donkey only.

John had made only four films, and he met a very tragic death, while he was preparing his fifth. He was a full time wino and had lived a nomadic life. From the words of those who had lived and talked with John, I have felt that he possessed great altruistic love towards all. He would hug a prostitute in crowd and say, I am not doing this out of lust, but I love you. Every one else love you for the night…But I need you in this broad day light. Knowing Johns attitude towards women, I have felt that Agraharathil Kazhuthai is a strong film about the ill-treatment of women, particularly low class women in Indian society.

John had perfect mastery over his medium. We can feel the adeptness, from the beautiful shot composition and masterful camera work that resembles even Bunuel or Hitchcock in that respect. John had said-"I am the Hitler of my cinema". Obviously only few filmmakers from India can say that. Forgive me if its becoming more like a note on Johns biography.

Jonh on Amma Ariyan (reprinted from the brochure of the 5th Turin Film Festival, 1987)

This film is an analysis of the extremist movement in Kerala during years' 70. Many of my friends legacies to that movement killed. They were much intelligent, sensitive and with a great aesthetic sense. Their dead women obsessed to me and that provoked in me desire to make this film. According to me the cinema would have to speak to people and people to speak through the cinema. The cinematographic experience would have to arouse the social conscience of the public. Through the Odessa Movies I want to show my films to people and who will not have the moneies in order to pay will be able to see them gratis.