Between the Apocalyptic and the Apocryphal: The Art and Vision of John Abraham

in Overview
Published on: 04 June 2018

R. Nandakumar

R. Nandakumar is an art historian and culture critic with a specific focus on cultural musicology. Apart from the visual arts, which is his home discipline, cultural musicology with a particular emphasis on the sociology of music reception is a major area of his research interest. He has taught art history in various Fine Arts colleges and has been Professor and Head of the Department of Visual Arts, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. Formerly a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, he has recently been Senior Nehru Fellow at Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.
Pursuing a bilingual career in writing, in Malayalam as well as English, most of his publications are extended essays in several parts, having been included in anthologies or having appeared in academic journals.


The art and vision of John Abraham


When in 1987 word got around about the death of John Abraham it seemed in a manner that was all of a piece with his life and what he was known for, almost as if he had called off the show. It took a while for those who knew him to realise that this time it was not another of his impossibly self-wrecking games that looked unreal, but was the one that was at last impossibly real, making death look less real. He fell to his death, drunk. For one who had lived all his life 'provisionally' (as Giacometti once said of himself) and on the fringes, the wantonness of the manner of his end had a perceived streak of the tragic flaw that ran all through his life.  Constantly divided against himself, the running theme of his internal conflict had to do with an inherent distrust of 'all logical categories, all pretences to truth and inevitability' (to say after Herbert Read as he summed up his own philosophy of anarchy). But at the same time, when he had to come to terms with these categories and these pretences, he did so by turning their very rationale into irony such that he could make a virtue of the bizarreness around his artistic persona. The resulting contradictions in his personality, between nihilism and romantic idealism, could only be reconciled by his succumbing to an image of himself which he hardly knew was an all too familiar cultural stereotype that was typical of the time.   


While Abraham had started work on his second feature film Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village 1977 b & w Tamil), the Internal Emergency of mid-1975 had just come into effect. The project was just moving ahead in fits and starts. During the Emergency, there was a conspicuous lull on the cultural front of Kerala like anywhere else. However, when the Emergency was withdrawn later next year the situation in Kerala was characteristically different.


Understandably, once the Emergency was withdrawn there was a spurt of art- and culture-related activities, almost amounting to a euphoric spree. That was the time when the print-reading, art-fancying, culture-mongering middle class elites got a shot in the arm – poetry reading sessions, film screenings, literary camps and workshops and so on were the order of the day. And everything was swallowed up by the culture industry and rehashed through the inflated and pompously vacuous verbiage of literary journalism that became a surrogate for serious critical enquiries undertaken with any amount of concern and commitment. There was an outcrop of little magazines which made the most of a peculiar ‘radical’ syndrome, being essentially a fall out of the preceding intellectual environment, emotional climate and mental ferment during the Emergency. When the ban on the ML faction was lifted, the erstwhile sympathisers and fellow travellers, more than the cadres, were more into ‘culture’ in a big way, becoming rather apathetic to politics. The cultural front they formed was rather amorphous and freewheeling in regard to ideological affinities and it functioned without any direct political leadership or control and could accommodate any number of self-styled ex-Naxalites who incidentally were, as the joke goes, more in number than Naxalites ever were. Suicides and psychic disorders were a common feature among the youth who once owed allegiance to the ideology or were active as cadres. Social recruitment in such situations functions through group affiliations for identity purposes in terms of the appropriation of and identification with certain cultural symbols that are themselves a kind of templates for enculturation. In the intellectual climate and emotional ferment that prevailed in Kerala in the eighties as described above when it was open season for a particular brand of self-appointed rabid radicalism, nobody missed to get on board the crowded bandwagon as these cultural templates were well within anyone’s reach. When the threats of the Emergency receded and became a thing of the past, it became the pretext for a self-indulgent and wishful glorification of the pet theme of imagined ‘sufferings’ at the hands of the Establishment – the displaced father figure. The public rhetoric of radicalism as it was in the air then was streaked with the moralistic and self-righteous undertones of a ‘social criticism’ which was well in tune with the elitist discourse of culture; and it was inscribed with the thematics of such a glorified ‘suffering’ in which a certain moral anxiety was posited as a grand political design of ‘radicalism’. The exact nature of this ‘social criticism’ should be seen rather not in the content than in the tone, tenor and temperament of its loud disclaimers, overstated denouncements and intemperate disavowals. Hidden beneath the compulsive-obsessive nature that marks these ‘radical’ stances of glorified persecution mania was a feverish anxiety and insecurity for which fear of success was an unconscious problem solving – with the persecutor always being the prominent other, sublimated into the image of the Establishment in the post-Emergency narratives. The collective anxiety and moral fears in which such a pathology of the self found expression created a social situation that proved to be conducive to a valorised pseudo-political rhetoric with its implications to ‘radical’ art, whatever that be. It offered the precondition for the creation of a particular self-image of the artist exemplified in the figure of the ‘rebel in rags’ – a kind of bohemian cum ascetic cum revolutionary – which was itself a cultural stereotype as the product of dominant representations. It is this self-image of the artist, bound by the rigid contours of a provincial ego and re-enacted through the accepted cultural stereotype of the ‘radical’, that many of the self-styled Radical artists of Kerala tried to appropriate for themselves in the eighties.  The curious psychic predilections and personality traits formed during that period lingered on well into the eighties and mid-nineties through the process of enculturation and group affiliations as described above. [. . . ] The general thematics of ‘suffering’ with which the ‘radical’ discourse is inscribed now assumes the self-deluding undertones of sacrifice, renunciation, abstention, stoicism, asceticism, etc., the implications of which are as important to politics as to art.1     


The affective undertone and intellectual tenor of the post-Emergency cultural scenario of Kerala as outlined above proved to be conducive to the self-definition of the ‘filmmaker as rebel’ and further, to the consolidation of the much-vaunted artistic persona that made the John Abraham that we know of. While the ‘rebel-in-rags’ image of Abraham in common perceptions that lent him a certain cultist status  was well in tandem with the emotional and cultural ferment of the time, it had arguably robbed him of the implications of his philosophic conflicts and deeper psychological equivocations. So much so that by the time he was making Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother 1986 b & w  Malayalam), it had come full circle when 'the current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers', to say after Auden as he wrote of Yeats on his death. Put simply, Abraham looked into a mirror and saw what his audience saw: the rebel in sequins. The man who tried to “unfold the romantic lie in the brain of the sensual man in the street”, to quote Auden again, became a willing victim of the same lie.


It is only four films that make up his known oeuvre: Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, Agraharathil Kazhuthai, Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal and Amma Ariyan. Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (This Way Students aka Students Today 1971 b & w Malayalam) was, on Abraham’s own admission, the outcome of the dire need to get going for himself and a group of his FTII friends on completion of their studies, looking for a breakthrough. The film appears, on the face of it, a moralising and didactic children’s film in a rather unexceptional manner until towards the end, a sudden twist in the narrative reverses the impression and redeems it from being a run-of- the-mill work in the genre. It is characteristically a John Abraham touch, probably after Nazarin by Bunuel, a film author whom Abraham greatly admired and was in perfect vibe with.


When I met Abraham for the first time in Thiruvananthapuram sometime in 1973 in my room in the lodge, he was introduced to me by senior friend and filmmaker K. P. Kumaran who was in the thick of planning the production of his first feature film Athithi. Abraham had been living with his elder sister in Chennai (then Madras) and he had apparently come over looking for a former colleague of his at the LIC in Bellary who could be a guarantor while applying for loan for his proposed film from the then Film Finance Corporation (FFC). He had the donkey-centred theme and a plot-line vaguely in mind and the characters being Tamil-speaking Brahmins in a Tamil agrahara (Brahmin village), the dialogues in Tamil together with the details of the milieu had to be written out in Tamil to make the script. This was the reason for collaborating with the Tamil writer Venkat Swaminathan for the script. However, Abraham felt the final script to be too wordy for the theme he had in mind and lacking in economy for his own expressive means. (Incidentally, a Malayalam translation of the script was published later.) Anyway, the script did not find favour with the FFC which proposed changes in it and Abraham had no other way than to mobilise resources from other sources through personal contacts. Finally his elder sister came to his help and the film did get started thanks to the generously supportive and appreciative role of a sister, in spite of the maverick behaviour and waywardly temperament of her brother. With lack of funds disrupting shooting schedules, getting stalled inexplicably, years separating the shooting, the production carried on piecemeal and haphazardly. Having had to work with three cameramen at different periods, during the course in which one of his old actors died and the female actor put on weight, with no consistent logistical coordination or dependable wherewithal to support, John Abraham seemed to be plagued by bad luck. And when at last the film did get made and hit the screen in 1977, black and white had already beat a retreat. The film was greeted with mixed responses. The more ‘enlightened’ film viewers of Kerala greeted it with great enthusiasm, no matter for what reasons, even as it was greeted in the home state itself with uproarious denouncements for its supposedly anti-Brahmin sentiments – the most unlikely of reasons. Much-maligned and misunderstood, the film continued to be under the spell of the same stigma as was evident from the Doordarshan’s announcement and subsequent withdrawal of it from telecasting on the national network even in the late 90s.  (Incidentally, as if to pre-empt the possible allegation of indebtedness to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, Abraham makes his character, Prof. Narayanaswamy refer to it in the very film.)


Part of the trouble with the film, with its perversely freaky and wildly farcical theme, was that it could not be placed within the expected categories of the ‘art film’ genre. With his inherent distaste for any kind of arty affectations, highbrow conceits or over-refinement, Abraham used to go to the other extreme, giving his style a touch of the consciously flawed and erratic where it requires to be given the allowance for a taken-for-granted kind of self-indulgence. On many occasions he used to make a virtue of his wanton disregard for verisimilitude and technical virtuosity and would consciously retain such flaws as would show through the lapses as if to prove the point that he couldn’t care less about those aspects. As for instance, the old village midwife in the Donkey film appears first with her natural grey hair, then with a tonsured head and for a third time, conspicuously with  a wig on, thereby flouting the norm of continuity which is one of the cherished values of realist cinema. Or again, in the last sequence when the village goes up in flames, one could see shadows of people moving over it, clearly reminding us that it is a ‘miniature’ shot, leaving verisimilitude to take care of itself. Several such instances could be cited which more than as ‘continuity breaks’ have to be seen as expressive of his disregard for the realist aesthetics of the second cinema. But such deliberate flaws, however much they are meant to be taken as such and given the allowance thereof, would only be seen as unconvincing and slipshod and a sorry admission of technical ineptness. Of course, adherence to principles and fidelity to the norm were the last things that Abraham would have been comfortable with. But though in all this, he was trying to consciously undo or eschew the studied craft and pretences to facility that was and still is an acclaimed virtue according to the internationalist idiom of the ‘second cinema’, it risked letting his films be considered more often than not as sloppy and slovenly. 


In the Donkey film, perhaps the most coherent and formally accomplished of all his films, from the metaphorical and allusive narrative register, emerge the reflections on life and reality that make a parable of it.


In many of his published and unpublished statements about his celebrated film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in the Brahmin Village, 1977 b & w Tamil), John Abraham had compared it to a folk poem or a fable. He never bothered to explain nor could he possibly have, least given to theorizing as he was. Certain aspects of the film like its apparently farcical and quizzical narrative content, are rightly the sort of stuff that fables are made of. Apart from that, the aspect of the organization of narrative time also has more than a touch of the folk about it,      [. . .]. 2


On this level the film is replete with Biblical allusions to Exodus, Denial, Revelation, the Resurrection and so on; and in a masterful touch of cultural syncretism, with imageries that subliminally evoke associations of the ancient Dravidian mother goddess cult. 


Right at the beginning there is a reference to the donkey calf being motherless. A few shots on, we see a cow being taken around from door to door for milking in the presence of the stuffed skin of its dead calf as tulchan.  The grimly disquieting irony introduces an underlying thematic motif that is central to his artistic vision – motherhood as a protective abode and the state of motherlessness as a metaphor of existential deprivation. In the subsequent two films this motif is seen in an evolved form as contributing to the overall structural dimension – reporting by and to the mother respectively, about her dead son.


In his last film Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother 1986 b & w Malayalam), which has the distinction of being one of the early crowd-funded films, the mother of the narrator who sees her son off on his way, and the mother of the protagonist who in the end receives the report about her dead son, merge into one composite image as counterparts of one concept. For Abraham, the redemptive undertones of the Christian archetypal image of the Mother at the Lamentation or Pieta, is a subconscious mediation in a world whose reality is drawn apart between the immediately human and the ultimately humane. The underlying theme of human suffering and angst as finds expression in all his films is informed by the deeply religious instincts of passion, temptation, sin and piety which are acted out with the fervour of ritual self-mortification as in a Gothic morality play. But the moment of redemption for his characters is absurdly mundane and self-negating wherein comes the particular moral relevance of all his films as having a bearing on the cultural pathology of our age.


In Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal (The Wicked Deeds of Cheriyachan aka The Evil Deeds of Cherian 1979 b & w Malayalam), beneath the layer of black humour and irony of the references to contemporary political scenario, the film addresses tangentially a form of social neurosis that veers between impotent self-righteous moralism and internalised guilt thereof  as inscribed on the margins of the individual psyche. The compulsive-obsessive moral fears and anxiety of the protagonist that combine the sense of guilt of passive non-action and the self-absolving displacement of guilt as of voyeurism become emblematic of a curiously ambivalent and yet aberrant mental ferment. What appeared to many as a conceptually muddled and technically messy narrative was in fact expressive of the inner turbulence of an overwrought mind that has lost its bearings. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes about the film:


It is Abraham’s achievement that this figure [Cheriyachan], steeped in the local mix of feudal and Christian traditions, becomes understandable as a frightened victim of history whereas most films would cast him as a one-dimensional villain or a grotesquely comic character. The film is Abraham’s most controlled, opening with a series of sweeping shots on the famed backwaters of the region as it establishes both the strongly realist and the quasi-mythic flavour necessary to allow for the transference of economic oppression into the condition of Cheriyachan’s guilt. It also leads the film into a far more contentious aspect of Kerala’s political cinema and literature, addressing the common phenomenon of presenting the responsibility of intervention in highly romanticised and even directly sexualised terms, or in other ways implicating individual responsibility towards history in the voyeuristic, infantile guilt of the passive observer. 3


That such a concern is not fortuitous is borne out by Amma Ariyan. Though the period and the background that the film is set against are not much different from the previous film, it is marked by a shift from the inward-looking subjectivity to the dispassionate style of docu-fiction in which by its very manner, references to objective social reality are no longer background details or sidelights but are integral to the progression of a freewheeling narrative. Through the motif of the journey – the archetypal voyage of self-discovery which incidentally, is strongly reminiscent of Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti, Takko aur Gappo – is unfolded a whole perspective in which the life of the narrator in the present and the lived past of the protagonist cross and mix. This perspective is criss-cross with allusions to history and the current world situation. The correlations between the actual, the historical and the subjective are not pinned down in terms of any causality in the narrative structure but spin around the actual event that the film is witness to. Scenes of political unrest and mass resistance, of police atrocities and oppression, of the bleary, disoriented anarcho-sectarian fantasies of revolution – all this forms the fabric of a reality in the complexity of which the subject and the subjective are subsumed.


Some of the instances of mass political resistance are recreated with the real-life participants in the actual events, interspersed with interviews and off-frame commentary, much as it is in The Hour of the Furnaces. This imparts a strident tone and tenor to the narrative which is relieved only by the lyrical thaw imparted by fluent camera movement expressive of a subjective vision. True to himself as one who could not believe in any pretences to truth and inevitability, this is a political film that, to say after Solanas and Getino in an adapted manner, does not offer 'an apologetic view of a one dimensional reality through an idealised illustration of a fact'. 4


It is interesting to note that Abraham started his career by assisting Mani Kaul on Uski Roti (1969) and held him in high esteem. They had high regards and warmth for each other; at the same time there cannot be two filmmakers as far apart as these two in their approach to the medium and style. Beneath the apparent slovenliness of a technically sloppy style (as for example, one character being dubbed in different voices) John Abraham’s filmic statements are informed by a complex and involved artistry which at the same time is free from all restrictive norms, as would express the ambiguity and ambivalence of meaning representations. In a memorable sequence in Amma Ariyan related to a political murder, the victim from whose subjective angle the shot is taken, is running for life but is never seen. There is an off-screen commentary at the beginning narrating the incident. The detached verbal commentary and the subjective intensity of the visual passage are juxtaposed in the ambivalence and complexity of perceiving reality. As the frantically moving handheld camera conveying the pangs of mortal fear comes to a pause, a bloodstained hand is seen in its last convulsions, clutching at something, scraping down the wall. It leaves a blood-smeared handprint on the wall just beside where there is another image of the hand as the symbol of a political party.


In Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal, the almost full circle panning at the beginning, with its agitated pace and rhythm, strikes the keynote of the theme of a mind that has lost its bearings and is adrift. It seems that Abraham had a penchant for certain particular camera movements like this full circle panning and certain mise-en-scene, like the movement of a figure in centralised composition moving exactly along the vertical axis in a static frame, as in the shot where the lean Brahmin is running down the flight of steps, outraged at the sight of the stillborn baby in the temple premises in Agraharathil Kazhuthai. The same pattern of movement can be seen in Kroora Krithyangal where Abraham himself appears in silhouette in the frame in the shot of a corridor of a hospital, first walking away from camera and returning from the far end of the corridor, both movements spatially foreshortened as they are exactly along the central vertical axis of the frame. The full circle panning in Amma Ariyan as when Hari, the protagonist and some others are playing bansuri on the terrace may seem a mindless self-indulgence that gets at nothing in particular. But on rethinking it can be seen to add a considerable lyrical touch to the overall subjective tenor and affective register of the film.  So is the case with another similar camera movement in the same film where it is apparently Antonioni-derived (the so-called Omega movement in the last sequence of The Passenger, which Abraham used to fondly hold forth on). In this shot is seen Purushan, the narrator, stretching himself under a tree in the shade strewn with flowers shed by the tree. As the camera moves past him in a panning and hovers idly over the tree top and returns, Purushan is marked by his absence. If movements like these with their fluent spatial accent and pace add a certain subjective dimension of a lyrical touch to the narrative vein as was mentioned earlier, the unsettling pace of the frenetic zoom and agitated panning as in Kroora Krithyangal lends a jarring harsh tone to the narrative. Incidentally, I’ve attempted elsewhere a detailed analysis of one sequence (the so-called seduction sequence) from the Donkey film to show how the organisation of the temporal dimension of the film works more like that of a fable or folk story. 5     


Abraham’s relation to the elitist and by extension, hegemonic culture of his time was always ambivalent and did not amount to more than an apologetic self-denial as he partook of the content of the high culture which he outwardly denounced. On many an occasion he invokes the cultural symbols typical of the elitism of the day in an affirmative gesture of identification with them, in spite of their pointlessness and incoherence to his own creative context. Interestingly, this is seen mostly in his last film and in a sense it is understandable given the post-Emergency fad and fetish that was at a high tide on the cultural front of Kerala. All those lengthy sequences of sopanam singing, mridangam playing  and the prakriti-purusha mumbo-jumbo raise serious questions about Abraham’s clarity of vision vis-a-vis his ostentatious non-conformism. 


Great art, notes the art critic Simon Vaughan Winter, is more often insecure and tentative than confident and rhetorical, because the artist works out from under the protective cover of knowledge and sophistication towards innocence and wonderment. It is such a shade of greatness that John Abraham’s art could have legitimately aspired for where the many telling flaws and lapses could ideally have been the preconditions for it. But it falls short of that. His art veered between the apocalyptic and the apocryphal.     


Notes and References

1. R. Nandakumar, “The Syndrome of Radical Regression or The Anatomy of Cultural Schizophrenia” TAPASAM, bilingual quarterly journal for Kerala Studies, vol. 3, nos. 1 – 2 (July – October 2007) pp. 185 – 203

2. R. Nandakumar, “The Organisation of Time in Agraharathil Kazhuthai”, Deep Focus, (October 2001 – January 2002) pp.  85 – 96

3. Ashish Rajashyaksha, “Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal”, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, British Film Institute and Oxford University Press, (Revised Edition 1999) p. 439 – 440 

4. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema”, Twenty-five Years of Latin American Cinema, ed., Michael Chanan, British Film Institute (1983) p. 23

5. R. Nandakumar, “The Organisation of Time”, ibid.