There are two kinds of film-makers—those who create an oeuvre of their own and leave a personal imprint on their field, and those who not only want to explore the medium and create a body of work, but also want to communicate and connect with society of their time. John Abraham was of the latter kind. He desperately wanted to make films of his choosing, but also wanted contemporary audiences to see and enjoy them. This is no doubt why, even three decades after this death, he is still beloved and admired by young film-makers and cineastes. Abraham’s legend lives on in the memories and anecdotes of his friends and fans as well as through his films and the stories he wrote. He has been adulated and imitated as a wandering minstrel and free spirit. Many film scholars and historians continually return to his films to draw new meaning and inspiration. He continues to remind us of what we can be despite the limitations of capital and state.
Ironically, writing on him and his films suggests that his personal fame exceeds that of his films. One might say that his real medium was his life, that his life in itself was a work of art that he sculpted. While John Abraham is a legend and an enigma, and he is remembered as a rebel artist and an anarchist, his inspired work in making the idea of a film collective a reality is less well known. Our times desperately need initiatives like his to break out of the shackles of both the nation state and global capital.
He was mythologised as a maverick genius, but it is more important to reclaim his other legacies as a filmmaker and as someone who tried to realise the potential of collective action in cinema. These legacies are even more important in our times, when oppositional movements of ideas or expressions—offbeat, alternative, art, new wave, etc.—are either suppressed by the state or turned into yet another brand in the vortex of global capital.
John, the filmmaker
John Abraham made only four films in a career spanning 15 years—Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (Students, This Way, 1971), Cheriayachante Kroorakrithyangal (The Cruel Deeds of Cheriyachan, 1979), Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village, 1977), and Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1985). He wrote stories and a play, Naikkali (Dog-Game), which he also directed.
Being a Kuttanadan (someone who hails from Kuttanad), and having been born into a traditional Christian family, his was inevitably a complex lineage. The vibrant culture and agrarian economy of his land, Kuttanad, was intricately interwoven with the culture of Christianity and communism—each with different martyrs and different kinds of martyrdom. It is a culture of celebration and self-denial, of exuberance and intense introspection, of body and mind, of matter and spirit. These tensions run through and animate Abraham’s films. Sometimes, they appear as adolescent rebellion, as in Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile; at other times, they surge up as guilt, as in Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal. In Agraharathi lKazhuthai, they create the tension of duty/compassion, and in Amma Ariyan, that of confession and atonement. It is this spontaneous and open, yet complex interface with different and conflicting streams of tradition and politics that distinguishes John, the man, from his films. They are political and historical in a very indigenous way. In all his films, there is a disturbing and intense grappling with tradition and contemporaneity. His form and narratives draw their energy and movement from this conflict.
His oeuvre was distinct from that of other filmmakers of his period. He made his first film, Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, a few years before the much celebrated ‘new wave’ reached Malayalam cinema. He disowned the film later, and his admirers always found this film an embarrassment, religiously omitting it from his filmography. The film tells a very simple and conventional story in a humorous manner and features several film comedians of the time, such as Adoor Bhasi, Manorama, S.P. Pillai, Paravoor Bharathan, Kuthiravattm Pappu, and Philomina. Though it was the story of school children breaking a statue in a school, it was not strongly iconoclastic.
His next film Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, was about Cheriyachan, a small time farmer in an agrarian village in Kuttanad. Although Cheriyachan is, in his worldview, neither an agricultural labourer nor a landlord, neither a communist sympathiser nor a bourgeois, he is torn by the social and political changes that are happening around him. After witnessing a crime, he experiences intense guilt. Caught between conflicting currents of change, and unable to take sides, he withdraws from the world. This film is rare in the way it refrains from glorifying or vilifying communist and peasant movements, but instead takes a very complex look at a moment of social change from the point of view of an individual who is caught in the middle of it.
While Cheriyachan’s conflict was related to an agrarian economy on the verge of change, Agraharathil Kazhuthai deals with the question of caste. The film is in Tamil, and follows a non-linear format to tell a story at multiple levels, with a touch of black humour. It follows the story of an accidental meeting between a donkey and a professor, and their relationship. Over the course of their journey from the city to his agraharam (Brahmin village), a story unfolds that addresses the various levels of oppression and violence—social, economic, and spiritual—underlying our casteist society. The inner workings of various institutions come into view in the film—college, family, caste, agraharam, temple, etc. It is the story of an apparently simple encounter between a Brahmin urban intellectual and a donkey—an interface whose metaphoric value draws both from the physical and the symbolic.
As in his other films, the narrative centres on an intense conflict between the individual and the system/society. The professor and Uma, a mute girl from the village, are kind and caring to Chinna, the donkey, and this simple act of love or compassion liberates them from their seclusion and darkness. Theirs is a humane act of innocence and love that is punished and mocked by the communities and societies—urban and rural—in which they work and live. This mockery of innocence ultimately ends up in a conflagration when the guilt arising out of the murder of the donkey results in the whole village being burnt down, bringing to mind the wrath of Kannaki. The element of guilt is a recurring theme in Abraham’s films, including Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal and Amma Ariyan. It is the ‘unexpressed social’ in each individual.
Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1985)
Amma Ariyan can, among other things, be considered a road movie that spans the whole of Keralam (the Malayalam term used for Kerala); it is a journey that is external as well as internal. The film maps Keralam at various levels—geographically (from Wayanad in the north to Kochi in the south), historically (revisiting radical moments of the Naxalite movement), and emotionally (portraying a whole array of individuals as ruins, or living memorials, of past events or history). The film begins with the protagonist, Purushan, accidentally coming across the dead body of a young man, Hari, who has committed suicide. He feels compelled to ascertain his identity and report the tragedy to the young man’s mother. He embarks on this journey, in which he encounters many of Hari’s friends and acquaintances in several places.
His search becomes a virtual journey through the ruins of a radical political movement. The various faces of Hari are gradually revealed—he is a tabla (drum) player, a fellow traveller in the extremist movement, and a friend of several artists and activists across Keralam. As he travels, we witness the ruins of a radical movement that has left its scar on everyone who was a part of it. Some have gone insane, while others have committed suicide or taken up art, activism, or alcoholism. Hari, at the centre of the film, embodies an intensely personal need for creative expression, and his suicide sets the narrative in motion. In a haunting sequence we see Hari very deliberately stabbing his tabla, his medium of expression. As the group grows and journeys through Keralam, what unfolds are sites and moments, martyrs and ruins of history, and mothers waiting to hear from their sons. The film ruthlessly dissects the present—it appears hollow, with everything heroic in the past. Contemporary times and lives are ruins of the past, feeding on guilt and memories. A sense of loss and desperation poignantly reflects the mood of the late 1980s.
Narratives haunted by history
Abraham’s protagonists find themselves in conflict with social systems, customs, and processes. Agraharathil Kazhuthai addresses casteism, in Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, it is land struggle, and in Amma Ariyan, it is the Naxalite movement—three very important socio-historical moments that mark our history and culture. His films are intensely personal, yet deeply social. One can see this conflict animating all his films—the desire and yearning of the individual to be tranquil and to be himself, in tension with the often violent incursion of the social into his life, and the consequent turmoil. It is this constant, intense, and deeply disturbing interface between history and its subject that distinguishes his films from other new wave films. The latter were infatuated with the ‘self-expression’ of the upper caste middle class intellectual, with the individual/protagonist living in a world of his own and the film’s ethical framework determined by his imaginary (Swayamvaram/1973, Uttarayanam/1975, Swapnadanam/ 1976, Aswathamavu /1978, Prayanam/1975, Thampu/ 1977, etc.). That many of their protagonists were aspiring writers is also not a coincidence. History’s role in these films was to reflect and highlight the inner conflicts of the individual at the centre of the narrative. In the other stream of ‘socially committed’ films, the individual was the tool of his society or class, and his inner conflicts were the result of his inability to de-class himself or to realise his social or class role (P.A. Backer films, Mrinal Sen, etc.).
In Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, the simple act of decapitating a statue while playing pushes the students to forma self-conscious community. In Agraharathil Kazhuthai, an act of tenderness becomes the central issue and awakens the subaltern conflict within the society at large. In Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, the protagonist’s simple act—or non-act—of witnessing a murder makes him complicit, and thus engenders societal and class guilt. In Amma Ariyan, Hari’s desperate and solitary act of suicide triggers a journey and an unfolding of memory through the land and history of Kerala.
Unlike those of his contemporaries, Abraham's characters do not indulge themselves. They are fragile and porous, and not limited or defined by their middle class identity. Any humane act is by definition transgressive because it is humane, breaks the prison of the middle class mind-set, and unites it with the social and the political. In his narratives, the socio-historical invades the apparent tranquillity and insularity/isolation of the personal. For John, the personal was deeply political and the political was deeply and inescapably personal.
Violence and guilt
Another undercurrent of his films is the manifestation of the social within the individual as guilt, and the manifestation of the individual in the social as violence. Guilt obviously is an inverted form of responsibility, a situation where the individual feels deeply responsible but powerless. Human, spontaneous, and ‘practical’ acts are perceived as transgressive, and they move the narrative into the web of the socio-political. In Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, the accidental beheading of the statue is followed by guilt and the recompense that follows. In Agraharathil Kazhuthai, the professor’s innocent love for the donkey, and his adoption of it trigger a series of incidents leading to its murder, followed by collective guilt and the conflagration.
In Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, the feudal violence that Cheriyachan is witness to inflicts guilt and grows as a phobia within him, eventually pushing him to insanity. Here, an individual takes responsibility for all the violence and guilt of society and, in the process, he loses both his individuality and his social identity. The whole of society and the outside world haunt him in the form of the police, the symbol of state power. In Amma Ariyan, Purushan’s discovery of the dead body of Hari, who has committed suicide, triggers his journey across Kerala. Over the course of that journey, he meets with Hari’s friends and their mothers, and he encounters social events and historical moments. He constantly turns back to his mother by reporting on the details of his journey, and in the end, he meets Hari’s mother.
Abrham was, and still is, known for his nomadic lifestyle. He travelled constantly from one place to another, and from one friend or group to another, always leaving stories and memories behind. They were journeys of escape as well as of self-discovery, boredom, and purification, through space as well as mind.
A nomad or a gypsy is one who has no land, or one who is engaged in an endless search for land or home. Sometimes a refugee, sometimes an immigrant. Only occasionally is a nomad someone who hates home. Home is a place that offers security, where one can return to whenever one feels like. Its feeling of safety is embedded in its predictability, its lack of threat and accident, its lack of contingency. It is closed to the outside, to outsiders and to aliens, and its boundaries are fixed. We are defined by its closure. Abraham and his narrative abhorred and shunned such safeties and closures and made him a nomad in more than one sense.
Journey is a metaphor that recurs often in his films—from the personal to the socio-political, from inside to outside, from theory to practice, from biography to history, from death to life, from son to mother and vice versa, from guilt to redemption, and sometimes, from guilt to violence.
In Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, the journey from school to the outside world is also a journey from the moralism and injustice of a closed system like the school to the ethical, open world of the community of school children and the outside world.
In Agraharathil Kazhuthai, the professor and Chinna, ridiculed on campus and in the housing colony, make a physical journey to the village. For the professor, the journey is also from the philosophy he teaches to the reality of the world he inhabits and to which he belongs—family, community, and the agraharam.
In Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, the journey is an internal and abysmal one. It is the fall into one’s own phobia-prone self. Cheriyachan recoils from the violent society of feudal greed and immorality, and gradually retreats into his home, hospital, and inner world. His journey is from the open, outside world into his own closed, unventilated world. In the end, he self-destructs.
Amma Ariyan is a road movie that spans the whole of Kerala. It is an external and an internal journey. Over its course, the film maps Kerala geographically (Wayanad to Kochi), historically (the radical phase of the Naxalite movement), and emotionally (individuals as ruins, or as living memorials of past events or history).
The legacy of the collective
It was this intense tension between the desire of the artist for self-expression and his commitment to social and political issues that spurred his creativity. It led him to find means of expression that were beyond the confines of the film industry, in environments that were conducive to production. This search may have eventually inspired a movement like Odessa.
Rajan Kurai Krishnan, in his article, 'John Abraham: Cinema and the Idea of the Collective', makes a very perceptive observation:
All of John’s films are explicitly concerned with collective action and social conflict. The first film was about how school children who are asked replace a statue broken by them make a collective effort to raise funds to achieve the task. The idea is to show how in the process, through a series of encounters they learn their role in the society. The second film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai, replete with allegories, metaphors and symbols, points towards the emergence of a subaltern collective in a highly theatrical finale, when the orthodox social establishment is engulfed in a purifying fire. Even the third film Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal, which has a paranoid protagonist Cheriyachan as the focus of the narrative, is actually about the tormented mind of an individual absorbing the social conflict, and his failure to become part of the emergence of the historical collective because of his class position. In fact, the mere storyline of the films of John, when presented in verbal narration, tends to make them appear didactic and unimpressive. Understanding the donkey in Agraharathil Kazhuthai or the mother in Amma Ariyan as allegorical figures does not guarantee the unravelling of John’s serious meditation on the collective. I propose that it is only by studying the film images in their autonomy and in their relationship to the abstracted narrative that we can begin to discover the many nuances of John Abraham’s thought regarding the emergence of the collective. (2011:43-4)
The Odessa Collective
The Odessa Collective was an initiative that intended to make comprehensive interventions in the field of cinema—as art, medium, and industry. The intent was to break all barriers that ‘capital’ built and maintains between cinema and its viewers, or between art and the community. By creating alternative networks for exhibition, distribution, and finally production, its objective was to turn the hitherto passive film viewers into active agents of, and in, cinema. The viewers were to eventually be the producers of peoples’ cinema. Their contributions—small or big—would become a kind of investment in cinema, or a kind of ‘advance purchase of tickets’ from the viewers, thus creating an advance ‘audience without a box office’.
Initially, Abraham made a film with the help of friends and film lovers. The idea of Odessa came later. A group of his friends in and around Kozhikode came together to raise money for a film. But he had bigger dreams; in his discussions with the group, the idea of forming a collective emerged. This would be a collective that, before producing a film, would make forays initially into the exhibition, and later distribution, of 16mm films. John travelled all over the state and outside of it, to raise resources for this initiative—P.K. Nair at the Film Archives, and filmmakers like Pattabhirama Reddy, G.V. Iyer, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Anand Patwardhan, Chalam Bennurakar, Vasudha Joshi, Ranjan Palit, Manjira Dutta, Dan Weldon, etc., expressed their solidarity and promised to offer film prints for exhibition and distribution. Prints in 16mm of The Kid by Chaplin and of other Indian films were made for distribution among film societies in Kerala. For this, a projector was also purchased. This exhibition network gradually developed into a forum for disseminating the vision of Odessa and also promoting the idea of film production. Collections were raised from the people, which eventually formed the initial capital to make Amma Ariyan.
The idea of making people—the ultimate consumers of cinema—its producers both guaranteed a sense of ownership on the part of the people and also gave rise to a great sense of responsibility on the part of the film-maker. It was a dynamic way for a film-maker to engage with his future audience—by involving them in all stages of production.
Other factors that helped were the socio-political climate of Keralam at that time, and also the progressive leadership of Kerala State Film Development Corporation, which was chaired by poet and film-maker, P. Bhaskaran. It was a time when there was a lull in radical political activism, and many young people and groups across the state were looking for something exciting and creative. John’s friends and well-wishers in all these groups readily came forward to organise screenings, collect contributions and also, eventually, to help with the production process.
Abraham had a theme that resonated with the political vision and angst of the sub-society that supported him. It was a theme in tune with the means and methods of film production. Intensely aware of the post-radical atmosphere of the early 1980s, he made a film about the living memorials of that period, his goal being to remember and remind. John’s oeuvre is distinguished by this yearning and by his ability to movingly blend the personal and the political without compromising either, but remaining keenly critical of both.
Looking back at films we have made in the three decades after John Abraham, it becomes apparent that there have not been any significant film-makers in the tradition that he launched. This fact is all the more painful because we are living in a time when image-making has become so accessible and affordable. Our films journey either outwards or inwards, but seldom do they find explosive interactions between the two, which is what sustains his relevance even today. His existential and political conflicts were one and the same (the existential was political to him), and he dared to look into both with great courage, openness, and freedom. The John legend and his legacy live on, and continue to inspire the present. His vision about cinema and his commitment to the idea of the collective are gathering more and more aesthetic, social, and political resonance in the times we live in.
Krishnan, Rajan Kurai (2011) “John Abraham: Cinema and the Idea of the Collective”. Journal of the Moving Image. No. 10, December. pp 40-50. http://jmionline.org/article/john_abraham_cinema_and_the_idea_of_the_collective
Abraham, John (1971) Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (Students, This Way)
- (1977) Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village)
- (1979) Cheriayachante Kroorakrithyangal (The Cruel Deeds of Cheriyachan)
- (1985) Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother)