A Master of ‘Critical Engagements’: John Abraham Remembered



“The anger and the creativity are so closely intertwined with me, and there’s plenty of anger left,” says film maestro Ingmar Bergman. If there was so much anger and creativity intertwined with a person in Kerala’s film world, that  was none other than John Abraham, a master of  ‘Arts’ in every sense, whose  80th birth anniversary falls on 11 August 2017 with hardly anyone remembering his role in the making of an avant-garde theatre in the state.

John’s 30th death anniversary (31 May) also went unnoticed even as the print and electronic (as well as the social media) have been ‘celebrating’ the fall of a celebrity in the cineworld whose dubious role is under investigation in a case involving the alleged molestation of a popular actress, a few months back.

Ironically, the last film John produced Amma Ariyan (1986) is also a symbol of the crisis which the entire film world in Kerala and its organisational forms (including the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists -AMMA) are confronted with. John wanted to tell everyone that Amma (mother) is a symbol of sacrifice, who alone could understand her children’s needs and aspirations, but “the latter hardly consulted her, and trusted her.” Deeply embedded in an environment of suicides committed by a few young Naxalites John had known in the mid-1970s, the film sought to convey a message that these self-killings were caused by deep disillusionment with the movement they had trusted so much with unflinching passion and undulating romanticism.

Much more than the theme, Amma Ariyan’s history of production is very important. John Abraham was already critical of the role of financiers in the film world, many of whom had come from outside Kerala and invested in the production and distribution of films with the sole aim of grabbing profit. He knew that the creative film world would continue to face a deep crisis in this vicious circle unless alternative paths and alternative audiences were put in place. This eventually resulted in the making of ‘Odessa Collective’ in the mid-1980s under his leadership, which sought to change the very contours of production, distribution and screening in the film world—a movement with immense potential for liberating the world of cinema from all cobwebs of capital-intensive ‘underworld.’ Though a short-lived experiment (with Amma Ariyan as the symbol of this collective will), Odessa set in motion an alternative film culture with the people at the bottom being active participants in the process—a kind of democratization of the film world.

Trained by stalwarts like Ritwik Ghatak at the Pune Film Institute in the 1960s, John did not have to his credit more than four films—Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (1972); Agraharathil Kazhuthai  (1977); Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal(1979); and Amma Ariyan(1986), besides a few short films and documentaries.   Agraharathil Kazhuthai  was a Tamil movie which won the national award for best feature film in Tamil in 1977.  While Amma Ariyan won the national ‘best jury’ award in 1987, Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal secured the Kerala State ‘best jury’ award in 1979.

More than the awards and honours he won, John valued the importance of people accepting his films.  If there was anything that he derided throughout, it was nothing but pretensions of intellectualism. John used to say that he never wanted to speak to his village people in a language and tone that they never knew and understood.

John’s philosophy of life is very simple—yet political and intellectual at other levels. He saw his world of cinema as essentially critical and exploratory. A good film is one that should go beyond its traditional boundary as ‘mass entertainer.’ People should know that there is a purpose behind every production, and that needs to be comprehended in the context of the level of awareness/consciousness it generates. Film as a cultural artifact has immense possibilities as much as it is an experience in itself. John seemed to have been in agreement with Brecht’s approach of Epic theatre the aim of which was to offer a narrative in a simple way so that the audience could be stimulated to think about the implications of the events that they watch.

John was leading the life of ‘nomad,’ moving from one place to another like a ‘permanent migrant’ in an argumentative realm of engagements. He had a passion for talking to common people, students, scholars, and colleagues in the film world, across the country and abroad, without any intellectual stigma. A good story teller that he was, John always used wit and humour in his writings to attract a reader/an audience to think differently, perhaps without any hard-headed logic. In that sense, John as a person had always been in the process of re-writing his own autobiographical script, a process of deconstructing oneself in umpteen ways—some sort of self-experiment with a determination ‘to change’ everything. The film world of Kerala that emerged since the 1980s unfortunately lost this rigour and commitment of a passionate skeptic who saw his world as nothing but critical engagement of ‘events’ as they unfolded.

The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached  at [email protected]

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