Analysing John Abraham’s politics is a difficult task, especially with regard to his ideology. John’s politics were essentially a love for humanity, to which his short but meaningful and painful life is itself a testimony. John was larger than life, larger that his films, and in a way, his life was a tragic story of mythical proportions.
John describes himself in John on John:
My politics was that of my father. My introduction to politics was courtesy, some of the local land labourers. That was the time when Communist parties were increasingly becoming stronger. Those days, I had good relations with Marxist party (CPIM), but never participated in any of their activities. Their working style was impressive to me. (Shaji 1994:11)
Though John’s family was from Kuttanad—around the Vembanad backwaters in the Alappuzha district—he was born in Kunnamkulam, in the Malabar part of Kerala, where his family had shifted because the police were in search of his father for political activities. John’s father was involved in underground politics, and even organised a procession in their area during pre-Independence days. The police took note of this and wanted to take him into custody; so, as was the practice, he went into hiding. As John’s mother was expecting at the time, relatives shifted her to Kunnamkulam in Malabar, the British ruled area.
Though John’s early education was in Kerala, Tamil Nadu played a major role in formulating his world view. After his graduation from Mar Thoma College Tiruvalla (Alappuzha district), he joined Dharward University for his postgraduate studies. His studies ended abruptly when he joined the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and was posted to Tamil Nadu. There, he was influenced by the Dravida culture of Tamil Nadu. ‘We have Dravidian origin. We were never wanderers like the Aryans. We lived as community for generations. Our connect with the land had developed a culture of our own in a unique tribal way. This tribal character defines the essential nature of the humans here’, John says in The Art of the Third Eye (Shaji 1994:17).
Years later, John further explained his world view in another note, 'Me and my Cinema':
I am nobody without a social point of view. My thought process has to be part of the larger social discourse. My aim is to do something for the larger good and to tell people that they are still good. I became a creative person, a film-maker when I feel I am telling some larger truth to people. If the film is artistic, it will also be people’s cinema. I want my people to see my films and they must enjoy it in all its dimensions. I am someone who got beaten up by my father for having tea from a local tea shop. As a person from such a strict feudal family, I want to be truthful Communist. (Shaji 1994:33).
Clearly, he identified himself with the communist ideology and parties, but was never quite comfortable with their style of functioning. Hence, he was a 'steepen wolf ' in life and politics, all through his career.Towards the end of his life, he confessed to an interviewer, K.T.N. Shastry, ‘I am a Communist. I am proud of it’ (Shaji 1994:107).
John joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune in 1965, after three years with LIC. FTII opened up the world of master filmmakers to John, which changed him profoundly. He never wanted to imitate the masters; he wanted to create completely independent films. John finished his film studies in 1969 and went on to work with Mani Kaul on the film, Uski Roti (1969, Other’s Bread). John and Mani Kaul together created a screenplay for the film based on a short story by the famous dramatist, Mohan Rakesh. John acted in the film, playing the role of a beggar. He liked the sentimental theme of the film, but not its unsentimental style, believing this discrepancy to be hypocritical. His strong disagreement with that style of filmmaking is evident in his description of it as being full of the algebra and geometry of the grammar of film.
After Uski Roti, John went to Madras to join the famous Pune House, where there was an assembly of FTII alumni at the home of the film-maker, P.A. Backer. These alumni included Azad, K.G. George, Editor Ravi, Ramachandra Babu, and Balu Mahendra, all of whom went on to become South Indian film legends. Azad (who later committed suicide, as his film projects had failed) introduced ‘Minnal’ (his pen name) to John. Minnal was not wealthy but was willing to go the extra mile to produce a good film. John had already earned a reputation as an anarchist with his bohemian lifestyle, and Minnal was warned by many friends not to trust him with a film. Minnal went ahead with the production of the film even so, as he believed in John’s creative potential.
The film Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (1971, Students, This Way, This Way) is about a group of students who break a statue while playing football, and then raise money to repair it through public contributions. The students succeed in repairing the statue, but as the film ends, they are playing and break it again. John, the idol breaker in the creative field, appeared to fantasise about his own act in film through the characters. The film was a failure at the box office and towards the end of filming, John disowned it. A few good songs from the film, written by legendary poet Vayalar, and an impressive score by M.B. Sreenivasan, are still heard on YouTube as a reminder of John’s first film.
John’s political vision is most evident in his best film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village), which was completed in 1978. Even though it was judged the best Tamil film of the year by the National Film Festival jury, the Tamil Nadu government did not allow the screening of the film for political reasons. He was denied the ₹2 lakh state subsidy and the Information Minister refused to see his film. The film was not released in theatres in Tamil Nadu or anywhere and is still shown only in film societies and serious film circuits.
John described himself as a representative of the oppressed, of the poor, and of Dalits who were always suppressed. The burning of the Brahmin village in the last sequence of the film denotes the rise of the oppressed, thus ending the film on a positive note. The film was made with many limitations, including being abandoned by the producer, so it was a huge struggle for John to complete. Although this did not affect the theme of the film, technical analysis reveals the shortcomings resulting from crippling his creativity by these financial limitations.
Years later John wrote in an article 'Cinema is All About Me', ‘My life itself is my commitment to my society and I have certain responsibility to them. I like the politics of Left and Communist parties. But I have strong doubts about their practical programmes (Shaji 1994:23).'
John’s doubts about the involvement of the established Left artists in cinema was evident in his article, 'Here the Bourgeoisie and Communist Unite': I cannot make a film like many of the Communists, who stay in five-star hotels and dress up like stars who take thousands of rupees as fees as poor men and women. There is no difference between the Communist and the capitalist in exploitation of poverty and pain of people. Here both are struggling to make money out of the soft feelings of people (Shaji 1994:36).'
He went on to explain in the same article: 'I am not taking films to expose my creative expertise. It is not just for me, if anyone says so, the person is fooling oneself. I want my films to be seen and talked about by people. I do not believe creativity is a masturbation act (Shaji 1994:37).'
Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal (1979, The Evil Deeds of Cheriyan) is a political film based on an incident from Kuttanad, where John’s family was from. It focuses on the guilt of a petty bourgeois man, Cheriyan, whose inner conflicts form the basic thread of the film. It is about the predicaments of common people and their exploitation by political parties. The film was produced by Janashakthi Films, the newly formed film company of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)). A plenum conference of the CPI(M) was being held at Thiruvananthapuram at the time. John tried to make a documentary film on E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the party's then General Secretary, but the party did not support the project, so it was abandoned after a few days of filming.
John also tried to make a film on the legendary Kayyoor uprising celebrated by the communists in the Malabar region. He wrote a script, but the producer abandoned the project at the last minute, so just like many of John’s filmy dreams, this project failed. It may have been his best political statement.
After the failure of the Kayyoor project, John undertook a street theatre production, Naykali (Dog Play) in 1984. This political play, with over a hundred actors, was performed in a public place in Fort Kochi, and led John to his next film, Amma Ariyan (1986, Report to Mother). It also led him to the concept of people’s cinema and to local, crowd funding of films; from this, ‘Odessa’ films grew.
In ancient Indian philosophy, the mother—the female—is the origin of strength, including the strength of a man. This concept is the basis of Amma Ariyan. John believed that all the problems of life must be communicated to one’s mother—a conviction that may have been the result of John losing his own mother at an early age. He believed that by sensitising mothers and convincing them of the need for action, politics and society could be a better place. John decided to make a film on the political issues of the land in the form of a ‘Report to Mother’. The film takes a non-traditional approach to time and space. It severely criticised the contemporary post- Emergency politics in a manner that was creative and original for serious films of that time.
John wrote this in a pamphlet to promote Amma Ariyan:
It is very difficult to even attempt the people’s aspirations (in a film) given the present circumstances. The visual and hearing faculties of people have been totally taken over by the commercial establishments and it is a difficult task even to attempt to take them to the reality. Films have become the favourite tool of the ruling classes. There is a need to liberate films from this situation. That will be a conflict with the oppressors. (Shaji 1994:263)
Through local funding of Amma Ariyan, John was able to eliminate the very concept of big capital, and in the process, he questioned his own methods of filmmaking. Indeed, ‘crowd funding’ continues to be a rebellious way of making a film even today.
John wrote in the introductory note to his last film, Report to Mother, as reported in an interview with K.T.N. Shastry:
Art is about realisation of life. It helps the individual achieve a kind of self-realisation. It is a provocative act in itself. When art becomes commercial, it can only act as a tool for exploitation. One needs to understand this contradictory situation to undertake creative life... My film is not to be shown in regular theatres. I have no plan to give my film to distributors. Art is not like apple or oranges on a display shelf. I may suffer losses. But poverty is not new to me. My film is to show it to people. Me and my friends will carry the film boxes and show it to people. I will put a cloth and ask the people to put their contributions. Let those who want to contribute do it. I will never give my film to a distributor. (Shaji 1994:107)
For John, his films expressed love for his fellow humans. He wanted to take on the full responsibility for his work and not leave anything for others. He considered all human acts to be political. His selfless life was the best example of his world view—he lived and died a bohemian, without roots in family or place, but with friends who shared his ideas. Even his brief marriage to Marian, a research scholar at Thiruvananthapuram, did not change his bohemian life.
John had many dreams about new film projects. According to Ramachandra Babu, the cameraperson for his first two films and fellow FTII graduate, the films that John talked about and planned, which he did not make, would have been greater than the ones he did make. But death took it all away when he slipped from the top of a building while singing for his friends one evening. John’s politics will only be complete when we look at the themes of those films that he could not make too.
Shaji, K.N., ed. 1994. John Abraham. Kochi, Kerala: Niyogam Books.