John Abraham- A Coherent Messiah

RITWIK GHATAK’S stint as Vice-Principal of FTII left something of him in his students. A John Abraham would never have happened were it not for the tutelage of Ghatak. The John Abraham folklore, or mystique if you like, is to be understood in terms of not just the films he made, but the mythical life he led that mocked decisively at norms and notions of accepted social behavior. While trying to neutralize the tyranny of the market, he forged direct ties with common people who consisted in a large measure of poor, illiterate villagers. Significantly, their lack of means or distance from books did not prevent them from recognizing in Abraham something special; as someone quite apart from the general run of Kerala intellectuals who lead self-engrossed lives in ivory towers.

John entered the film industry working as an assistant director to Mani Kaul for the film Uski Roti(1969, Hindi). He then moved to Madras, where he made his first feature Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (1971, Malayalam).He followed it with Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977, Tamil), Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal (1979,Malayalam) and Amma Ariyan (1986, Malayalam).

The National Award winning film Agraharathil Kazhuthai is considered a classic. In this satirical film, a donkey strays into a village of upper cast Brahmins and becomes the talking point and the lead character of the film. The then Kerala Government stopped the film from being screened on Doordarshan as bigots rallied to have the film banned. The Sunday Indian called it a “hard-hitting satire on Brahaminical bigotry and superstition.”
Another film that has a cult following is Amma Ariyan. The British Film Institute features Amma Ariyan in their list of Ten Best Indian movies ever made. This 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 sciascopes 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 visualization. What is unique about Amma Ariyan is Abraham’s Odessa Collective. A group of enthusiasts travelled through villages to collect money from people willing to contribute to become a part of the people’s film movement.

           As his beloved Ritwikda, similar fate was reserved for John also. His drinking and his offhand lifestyle caused some people, obsessed with bourgeois standards, to look upon him as a pariah. Little or no mention was made in well-defined circles of his importance as a filmmaker, an intellectual and a citizen.

         While on the subject of the near-hysterical allegiance on the part of many viewers in Kerala, Bengal and elsewhere to the artistic and political legacy of John Abraham, one vehemently repudiates the suggestion heard occasionally that it is juvenile or that it reeks of over-enthusiasm. Come to think of it, it is people like John Abraham and Ritwik Ghatak who have given to film art in India that memorable cutting edge without which the viewing experience becomes listless, predictable and grey. Cinema is a many-roomed mansion; and the master and his pupil, who was himself maturing into a master when prematurely called away, inhabited a particularly ill-furnished chamber reserved for those fanatically opposed to mathematical precision or clinical cleanliness in art.

       As a movie-buff, I am bounded to say that John Abraham is a specter that will continue to haunt the mediocre and the petty-minded for a long time to come; a dead man who refuses to die, who drew spiritual sustenance for as long as he lived from the example of his teacher and older kinsman.

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