John Abraham and the Socio-Political Contexts of New Cinema in Kerala

in Article
Published on: 08 June 2018

V.K. Cherian

V.K. Cherian is the author of 'India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact' published by Sage in 2017. He is a senior media professional and film society activist.


Film-maker John Abraham (1937–1987) is still remembered as a cult figure of New Indian Cinema, especially those of his genre from Kerala. Though he made four films, and many films he attempted were not completed or remained at the script stage, his commitment and dedication to the new genre of film-making remains imprinted in the legends of emergence of new Malayalam cinema. During the last years of his life, Abraham was not just challenging the established, highly capital-intensive film industry, but trying to upturn the very process of film making through novel method of crowd funding.  This new model of film making, has now become popular among the new film makers. Crowd funding of film making, and open screenings remain a John Abraham legacy in Kerala.


Academic and social context


John Abraham was among the early graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), having enrolled there in 1965 after two years with Life Insurance Corporation (LIC). His decision to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker was a rare and bold one in an environment where good employment was a life goal and a public-sector job was treasured.  For his family of conservative Christians from Kuttanad, now the tourist paradise of Kerala, such a step meant suicide, as it meant abandoning financial stability. FTII graduates at that time depended entirely on government loans and film division films for their personal and professional survival as filmmakers.


John graduated in history from Thiruvalla Marthoma College in 1961. Thiruvalla, a small town of Southern Kerala, is the headquarters of the Marthomite sect of Syrian Christians. Both this small town and Kottayam where John studied, are Syrian Christian dominated areas. Syrian Christians claims to be the oldest sect of Christianity in Kerala and practices an ancient worshiping style compared to other churches.  Thiruvalla also became, in the early 1900s, one of the first places to have a girls’ English school. Education was seen among Syrian Christians as being key to progress and to achieving aspirations. John’s birthplace, Kuttanad, was at the time witnessing a serious uprising of landless agricultural labourers under the influence of  the  communistthe communist parties which were making deep inroads in the area. The 1950s and 1960s saw a deterioration in law and order and many killings of both labourers and land owners, as the conservative Christians, under a local leader, resisted the communists. Abraham grew up during this period, and the plot of the film The Evil Deeds of Cherian reflects his experiences in those formative years. His mother died when he was a child, and his father remarried, and he was brought up by his sisters. His relationship with his father was uneasy, though in his later recollections he refers to his father proudly. In a rare autobiographical note (in ’About John by John’) he says of his grandfather:


I have been seeing films from the age of five. …Those days itself, I wanted to be a film-maker. I used to tell my friends that I will make a film one day. The inspiration was my grandfather. He was a retired engineer. My grandfather had lot of books about photography, cinema and had a camera and projector. He was a real genius. I do not have one fourth of his qualities. He was my guru. He taught me to see films. He used to pay me to read his books. In short, I was his disciple. I have his name too. John. His full name was Jacob John. (Shaji 1994:12)


John Abraham became part of radical student politics by the communist political activism and uprising of the workers of the area, and he won the student union elections to become the Arts Club Secretary at Marthoma College.


At FTII, he was exposed to an explosion of   world classics,  which initially confused but excited him later. He saw the films of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Luis Bunuel. ’I never thought of imitating the masters. I must create something new. That was my biggest problem those days. How do I create my own films?’ John wrote later (Shaji 1994:12).


As Adoor Gopalakrishnan, his fellow filmmaker from Kerala recollected, John, though older to me in age, reached FTII, Pune, when I was in my third year. He had resigned his LIC job at Kumbakonam (near Chennai). Generally, first year students are ignored by seniors, but John soon became the darling of the campus. There was a group of students who always engaged with John, as he had unusual insights about theatre, painting, music and literature for a first-year student. John, with his funny demeanour and sharp wit, always could get to the depth of the issues in discussions’ (Shaji 1994:141).


At the FTII, like most of his contemporaries, Abraham, a gold medallist in direction, was totally enamoured by the vice principal, and eminent director of Bengali film, Ritwik Ghatak. ‘Ritwik da’, as he was popularly called, had made a number ofseveral brilliant films, but a lack of box office success and funding and the resultant struggle for work had made him an alcoholic. Film historians say that Ritwik da was appointed as the vice principal of FTII based on Satyajit Ray’s recommendation to Indira Gandhi, the then Indian Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, who was a friend of the New Film movement. Ray and Mrs. Gandhi ‘conspired’ to give Ritwik da steady work in his chosen medium, which stabilised his creative life. As FTII legends have it, it was Ritwik da who introduced John Abraham to the hooch dens of Pune, just as John later introduced some of us, who went for entrance examinations and interviews there.


From the Pune Film Institute, Abraham went to what was then Madras city, the capital of South Indian film industry, to pursue his filmmaking career. In those days, the film industry in general detested the FTII graduates as, they many of the graduates considered themselves more knowledgeable about all aspects of filmmaking than their more established colleagues.


Soon after his graduation, Abraham joined a group of FTII alumni in Madras, struggling to make their first films and later became legends of Malayalam cinema in their own right. He moved into the now famous 'Poona House' where P.A. Becker and K.G. George also lived, both of whom were aspiring filmmakers and assistants to director Ramu Kariyat. Poona House, nicknamed by the Madras-based Malayalam film industry of that time, has now became part of Malayalam film history, as all three of the occupants of the house went on to make their definitive mark on the Malayalam film industry.


Abraham’s first film in 1969 was shot in collaboration with his FTII colleagues. Azad wrote the script and found a producer for the film, and Ramachandra Babu was the cameraperson. Though the film got a normal theatre release, but by the end of the filming schedule, Abraham had begun to openly disown the film and even shot a sequence with his unit to show their discontent. His first itself ended up with a clash with the mainstream film industry. The producer ordered the “special” sequence to be edited out and ensured a release of the film “Vidhyarthikale ithile ithile” with four songs, one by the popular comedian of those times—Adoor Bhasi.


The rebels had finally got a chance to make a film, but they were bitterly disappointed with their own product and succumbed to the mighty film industry.  Unable to fight the traditional film industry, Azad, the script writer of the film, committed suicide a few years later, becoming the first martyr in the struggle for better films in Malayalam. John took to heavy drinking, just as had his 'guru' at FTII, Ritwik da.


While they were struggling to make their dream film from Poona House in Chennai, another FTII graduate, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and some friends were establishing the first Film Society of Kerala, ’Chitralekha’, in Thiruvananthapuram. Poona House and its inhabitants continued their individual efforts, and K.G. George, P.A. Becker, and John Abraham made their first films from the “Ponna House”.


Political context


From his second film onwards, Abraham’s films started to carry heavy politically rebellious overtones. The film’s name alone, Agraharathil Kazhuthai, (Donkey in a Brahmin Village) made in Tamil, was enough to shake the conservatives and they ensured film was not given a theatre release in Tamil Nadu.  Such an open and direct attack on the establishment of the Madras-based Tamil and South Indian film industry was unheard of those days. The then Information Minister, in spite being a producer himself, did not support the film with the normal government film subsidy given to such films, Furthermore, despite the all-powerful film star Chief minister M.G. Ramachandran’s displeasure over such a rebellious film in subject and its making, the film was adjudged as the best Tamil film of the year by the National Awards jury. This was no mean achievement for a film that was rejected by the Tamil filmy establishment in the capital of South Indian films. After the awards the film became the darling of the film society circuits. The clash with “New wave “films and industry were out in the open with the national success of John’s film, while the “industry” and its leaders tried their best to downplay the film.


In his home state Kerala, John was considered a leftist, even—with his last film, Report to Mother—a Naxalite of sorts. His third film was produced by Jana Shakthi Films, promoted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and explored the agricultural labourers’ struggle against local landlords. This film was warmly received by the Left in Kerala. John declared himself a Communist by conviction, but he never agreed with the working style of the Communist parties in Kerala. His bohemian lifestyle was anathema to the Left establishments. As a result, they did not support his efforts to make a film on the history of the Kayyur struggle of the Malabar peasants or a documentary on E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the tallest communist leader of Kerala those days.


The Odessa Collective and the Film Society of Kozhikode were often described as Naxalite cultural organisations, as most of the members were associated with the people’s trial and street theatre of the 1970s in Kerala. However, for Abraham, they were a means to realise his dream of making people’s films through crowd funding and ensuring the participation of people at large, in the new films. As Abraham himself stated in an interview, ’There was a mistaken impression about me and Odessa (of being Naxalites). But Satchidanandan (poet) and K. Venu (Naxalite ideologue) never accepted us as Naxalites. After reading the script of the film (Report to Mother) Venu declared it is an anti-Naxal film (Shaji 1994:129).'


Abraham could never be confined to an ideology or a party. He was a free creative spirit and a bohemian, but with a deep commitment to the poor and the underprivileged. His batchmate, Gautaman, who retired as India’s Films' Division chief later, shared the story of how Abraham got his suspension revoked at FTII by staging a play on hunger. The narrative of the play was very moving, with the protagonists cannibalising each other due to hunger, and Abraham himself acting out the last scene as the characters turn into wolves, one by one. He was a down to earth humanist who could make friends with a hooch seller as well as filmmakers and other cultural icons of his times.


Activist context


His second film, Donkey in a Brahmin Village, was very problematic for Abraham, the film maker and the person. The script itself, written by radical Tamil writer Venkat Swaminathan in the conventional style, disturbed him, and a few days after filming started, he publicly tore it up. According to the filmmaker T.V. Chandran, the public denouncing of the script upset even the small committed Tamil art house cinema groups. John’s act of public defiance of all established routes of film making and conventions led to in the film being not given a respectable theatre release in Tamil Nadu, even after it received the President’s Award for Best Tamil Film of that year. The film which began shooting before the politically turbulent times of national Emergency of 1975 was completed only after the historic elections of 1977, which saw Prime Minister Indira Gandhi losing power to liberal forces.  John remained as prophet of political liberal forces all his life too.


Personal context


What made Abraham an iconic figure? Was it his commitment to communicating with people through cultural media? Was it the subjects of the films and their format, whose production was too complex for a bohemian like him to handle? Or was it his humanist approach, which set him apart from all his contemporaries? He believed in friendship with his fellow human beings, irrespective of class or caste and political opinion, which was rare in India those days. But for his obsession with alcohol, he was as innocent as a child in most ways, as all of us who knew were personally known and interacted can testify. ‘He began to drink after he joined the FTII and that too due to his financial difficulties. The uncertainty of his second film, Donkey in a Brahmin Village, was a big blow to John. Producer Charlie gave him just Rs 5,000. Rest was given by our elder sister,’ Abraham’s sister recalled (Shaji 1994:184). According to the writer, Paul Zacharia, an old friend of Abraham, ’Alcohol was a medium for John to interface with the world. To deal with the world in his own terms. John minus alcohol was a darling for his family members. With his unique lovable demeanour, John will conquer all (Shaji 1994:149).'


A unique creative madness was ingrained in John. He was passionately involved in human beings around him, films, fine art, the politics of the Left, a free world, free religion, free interpersonal relationships, literature, and friends. There was no ’John for John Abraham’. He existed for others and causes he believed in. He taught with his words, with his life, and with his films, which looked at the world from this totally ‘creatively mad’ point of view. It was a madness that the young people of the time loved, and it made him a cult figure in Kerala. As someone joked, his shabby look and his dirty beard led to a wave of bearded youngsters in Kerala. He glamourized the bohemian lifestyle for a generation, though none of his followers could claim his intellectual or creative stature. He even tried his luck with normal middle-class life but failed miserably. His brief life with his beloved Mary Ann, a research scholar at the English department of Kerala University, was such an experiment at being ‘normal’. They lived together, and he tried his best to be a good husband to a woman who was educated in Singapore and resisted his bohemian lifestyle. ’I can’t be an Alsatian (dog),’ quipped John, when the relationship was over.


The new wave film context


John made four feature films and they remain landmarks, though with the technical imperfections which have come to be his trademark style. Only John can write—sorry, dictate—a short story like ‘Kottayathu Ethra Mathaimar’ (How many Mathews in Kottayam). ’He loved short stories of Chekov, Dostoevsky and Borges. He was excited about the films of Bresson and Bunuel. He worshipped Ritwik Ghatak. Ritwik da had endeared him during his FTII student days. He respected the Malayalam film-makers, Ramu Kariyat and P. Bhaskaran (both in the forefront of New Malayalam Cinema),’ his FTII mate Gautaman wrote (Shaji 1994:166).


His second film, Donkey in a Brahmin Village, was noted across the world. Marie Seton, the British scholar and evangelist of New Indian Cinema on a visit to Kerala during the period, was as vocal in her support of Abraham and his films as she was of Satyajit Ray and Pather Panchali. According to Prof C.R. Omanakuttan, who was Marie’s host at Kottayam, Marie told them that Abraham was the foremost filmmaker in Kerala, placing him above Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who had bagged four national awards for his first film. During that visit, John appeared to have met Marie fully drunk, and much to the embarrassment of the British scholar and her hosts, only to be taken away as he was in no state to have a conversation with his new scholarly admirer.


In New Cinema of Kerala, John Abraham’s name is mentioned in the same breath as that of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan. Many believe he should have been the leader of the New Malayalam Cinema, but for his alcoholic and bohemian life, which never allowed him certain creative discipline to attain the leadership role. Both Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan respected him for his life-long commitment to good cinema and they were present at his ancestral house for his funeral in 1987.


Odessa Films, where he pioneered the crowd funded people’s film, did not take off after his death, but the concept has caught on in his home State. Kerala filmmakers honour him with an annual John Abraham Award funded by the local unit of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI). His death anniversary is observed by cineastes even 30 years after his death. He was omnipresent in the university film appreciation courses of the 1970s and 1980s in Kerala. He gladly accepted any invitation from the 100 plus film societies of Kerala and with his films or spoke about new films, adding more converts to new film culture of Kerala, like a true evangelist of new film culture. He wrote short stories in Malayalam and supported the African National Congress and their struggle against apartheid with his song, Free, Free Nelson Mandela. He recited pages from One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book by legendary Spanish writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, exciting the young followers to his” cult”.


Despite, his imperfections of films and his personality, his commitment to film and culture made him an iconic “cult “figure, who is being celebrated even today in Kerala.  He was an icon who inspired people to embrace freedom of thought, speech, and public good. He stood for good cinema and its creative spread and for making the film movement of Kerala a popular people’s movement. He was planning a film called Nanmayil Gopalan before his death. Despite his bohemian lifestyle, ’goodness’—nanma- remained foremost in his films and life. He left a legacy of life full of goodness and films which spoke a language of the human goodness, making him a “cult” figure for generations. If there is an evangelist who was a sacrificial goat at the altar of New Cinema in Kerala, it is undoubtedly John Abraham.




Shaji, KN, ed. 1994.  John Abraham. Kochi, Kerala: Niyogam Books.