Cinema of Insurrection – Rebels, Gentlemen and Other Players

john abraham

“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. John did what he did because Ghatak validated his angst. Similar was the case with his other protégés, but besides these few men, the legacy of Ghatak seems to have terminated. We need more people to be aware of this great man’s oeuvre and humanity. We need young filmmakers to continue in the tradition of this alternative school of filmmaking.” – John Levich, American film critic

John Abraham, one of New Indian Cinema’s most creative, conscientious and lovable representatives, died in a tragic accident more than 30 years ago. He was not yet 50 and at the height of his powers as an artist who combined in his vision the philosophical calm of a prophet with the bewildering unpredictability of a madman. When he died, there departed with him a part of what may be called “the Ritwik universe”. What exactly is meant by that expression is difficult to say. Perhaps, it indicates a vague awareness of a creative richness that is not given many to possess.

Ghatak had faith in Abraham. He sensed in the young man a capacity for creativity that he did not find in too many of his students. Talking to an interviewer, Ghatak once said that he “pinned” his faith on John Abraham; and John did not fail his Ritwik-da. Especially in his last film, Amma Ariyan, which may be read as homage to both Mother and Mentor.

One first heard of John Abraham sometime in the late ’70s after his second film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village), had caused a wave of critical interest. Made in Tamil and not in the director’s native Malayalam, the film is a delightful and disturbing satire on Brahmin superstitions and bigotry told through the story of a helpless little donkey. The poor creature is blamed for all the ills that descend on the village and finally done away with by some hired killers. But habitually tongue-in-cheek John wouldn’t let the story rest at that. The humble four-legged was invested with posthumous miraculous powers, as also with the strength to invoke an apocalyptic end. Following the death of the donkey, an absconding son returns out of the blue, a lame woman is able to walk again, and so on. The sinner becomes a saint overnight : a temple is raised to the memory of the benevolent donkey, and black humour expressed in an almost documentary style has a field day.

While the film succeeds in giving an idea of how people with closed minds give birth to rigid and cruel societies, it can also be read as an allegory with recognizable parallels in human experience. Many an innocent person is hounded out of his wits in his lifetime, only to be pronounced blameless when he is dead and gone. When Ghatak was alive and made his kind of films with rare skill, deep insight into the lacerations that made for the lives of the ‘other’ and a conviction bordering on vengeance, he was declared by genteel society to be insane as a result of excessive drinking over a period of many years. But once he was dead and could no longer be a thorn in anyone’s flesh – or so they thought – retrospectives of his films began to be held all over and such homage started being paid to him by word of mouth or in writing as would have caused him to shrink in embarrassment had he been living.

A similar fate was reserved for John Abraham. 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. Truth to tell, if the likes of John Abraham are allowed their pilgrim’s progress without hindrance, they can prove to be a real threat to the iniquitous, established order of things. So the world’s gatekeepers and policemen try to laugh off the rebels and the non-conformists – but what nervous laughter it can be !

After graduating from Kerala University, John Abraham took a job with the LIC and adorned a clerical chair in the Bangalore office of the organization for a while. Soonafter he joined the FTII where he counted K. K. Mahajan, Mani Kaul and others among his friends. His first film, Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (This Way Students, 1971), won the national award for best story, but went largely unnoticed. It was with Donkey, his second film, that he made many sit up with a start. It was another five years before he could make his third film, Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal (Cruelties of Cheriyachan, 1979), an examination of the feudal system through the story of a landlord who tries to escape the retribution of history by seeking refuge atop a tree !

Amma Ariyan, his fourth and final work, deservedly made John Abraham a legend. Rarely has a film established a director as firmly in the minds and hearts of serious viewers as Amma Ariyan did. Crossing State boundaries and regional frontiers with a sureness that was difficult to believe when it first began to happen in the late 1980s, Amma Ariyan now has a pan-Indian audience that is characterized by mature thinking about cinema as art, as politics, and as philosophical discourse not confined to metaphysical niceties. John Abraham’s political philosophy is full-bodied, rooted in the scarred lives and experiences of the people he chooses to portray, and yet ethereal in a moving, contrary sort of way. Here is a saint of the gutters in whose vision the profane became sacred and the sacred, ordinary. Another way of putting it would be, here is a profound practitioner of the arts, excelling as much in street theatre or impromptu singing as behind the camera, whose celluloid outpourings cannot be divined unless the viewer is equipped to accompany him on his delirious flights of fancy or on peripatetic journeys to the centre of doomed souls.

One of the mysteries of (the now largely defunct) New Indian Cinema that never ceases to haunt the late director’s numerous admirers, relates to the speculation of what further conquests he might have made had he not died at the comparatively young age of 49 after taking that quantum leap with Amma Ariyan which is the kind of dream that any filmmaker of substance would love to make happen. To leave just at the moment when one is poised to join the pantheon is, for many, a deep-seated sadness. It is difficult not to get emotional while discussing this ‘people’s artist’, not so much in the sense of social realism as value-driven humanism born of an unflinching agenda not to submit to the tyrannies of the market or the demands of bourgeois respectability.

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. One daresay that making it big in the world in his lifetime may not be the best thing to happen to an artist.

John Abraham was a ‘romantic artist’ in the highest and noblest traditions of the expression. Believing that cinema could be used as an effective tool for social change, he spearheaded the Odessa Collective which aimed at the production and exhibition of creative and meaningful films with the active participation of the man-in-the-street. The importance of the Odessa Collective is that it was the first – and perhaps the only – attempt to take on the intervention of market forces. Understandably, Odessa’s first film and Abraham’s last – Amma Ariyan – cast all conventions to the winds and rewrote the grammar of filmmaking to suit the director’s purposes. It would be blasphemous for Kerala’s ‘established’ filmmakers to do anything like what Abraham and his friends did – for instance, they went around like nomads from village to village raising money for making films. Beating drums, singing and putting up skits and short plays at street corners, they asked for contributions for what they called ‘people’s cinema’.

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 behaviour. 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. It does not require acute intelligence to realize why these self-important creatures of conformity shiver like leaves at the very mention of John Abraham’s name. Like the Biblical saint after whom he was named who gave his head to a tyrannical king and a dancing girl but not his faith, John Abraham is a spectre 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 kinsman.


It is only to be expected that a modern and powerful medium like film should take urgent note of the Naxalite movement in its different regional avataars in this vast and variegated country. In this connection, two films that have rightly come to enjoy cult status must be mentioned before any other –  Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti Tokko Aar Goppo and John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan. They are often talked about together – in the same breath, so to say – not only because they deal with, among other things, the common theme of trying to find out what went wrong with the extremist movement that it could be suppressed so easily by the powers-that-be, but also because the viewer is repeatedly reminded of the commonality of their makers’ political attitudes and artistic sensibility.

Of the four films that Abraham directed in about two decades, the last two in particular were explicitly political even as they revealed their director’s interest in examining individual stories in the backdrop of social realities. If Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal took on the feudal system and police atrocities that characterized the feudal period, Amma Ariyan wove fact and fiction almost in a documentary form to narrate the political history of Kerala, especially the history of the extremist movement that caused many idealistic youths to give up everything in pursuit of dreams of justice and equal opportunities for all. If Abraham’s knowledge of Marxist and Christian traditions came to the fore in

Cheriyachente to portray the feudal landowner as a victim of history paralysed by fear and ennobled, in a sense, by his belated understanding of the cruelties and contradictions inherent in the feudal system, Amma Ariyan showed the director’s political maturity, his commitment to the underdog and his philosophical approach to death and suffering through stories of doomed dissenters. Arguably, no film in any Indian language has dealt with the Naxalite movement with greater understanding of the subject than Amma Ariyan.

Structurally, Amma Ariyan is reminiscent of Ghatak’s last film, Jukti Tokko Aar Goppo, which tried to come to ideological grips with a group of militant young Naxalites holed up in a jungle, both fearless and vulnerable at one and the same time. Ghatak’s film starts in the port city of Calcutta and ends in a stretch of woods and hills in the Bengal countryside; Abraham’s starts in the northern highlands of Kerala and ends in the port city of Cochin. Both cities carry memories of the arrival of foreigners as merchants or missionaries who turned into exploiters in no time. Both are ‘road movies’; in either film, assorted peripatetic characters come together in what turn out to be journeys of realization at different levels – individual, collective, historical, polemical. Purushan starts the journey alone in Amma Ariyan but is joined on the way by several other young men who, together, reach a difficult message to a bereaved mother. In Jukti Tokko Aar Goppo, Nilkantha Bagchi, who calls himself a wasted intellectual, begins on what looks initially like an exercise in pointless wandering which, however, gathers increasing momentum till it ends on a high note of self-discovery coupled with a bold enunciation of ideological meanderings and political idealism. There is about both the journeys a deceptive ordinariness. However, the receptive viewer cannot remain indifferent to the denouement in either case to a series of events linking, briefly but very well, the lives of some common people brought together by circumstances partly of their own making and partly dictated by that inscrutable quantity called destiny.

Clearly, the two films are of a piece – a common attempt at showing the historical links between the past, especially the post-Independence past, and the present, meaning the passage of time till the outbreak of the Naxalite revolt and its immediate aftermath; the same fierce faith in the coming generations which, however, would do well, or so the directors seem to maintain, to examine seriously the dialectics of human relationships before plunging into the maelstrom of political and social liberation; and, finally, a similar preoccupation with the idea and being of the Mother as the fountainhead of strength and energy. To get an idea of the vision and convictions that went into the making of Amma Ariyan, the viewer can profitably turn to one sequence in particular – Purushan, the protagonist, and his small band of comrades coming out of an ancient church in Cochin. Unforgettable in its quiet yet feverish impact, it summed up the feeling of unity of man in the service of a common ideal. It is this oneness of spirit that is at the core of what Abraham had to say about what sadly turned out to be his swansong : “Amma Ariyan is an analysis of the extremist movement in Kerala during the late ’70s. Many of my intimate friends connected with the extremist group committed suicide in that period. They were very intelligent, sensitive, and had high aesthetic sense. Their deaths were haunting me and this provoked me to make this film. The way I see it, films should speak to the people and people should speak through cinema. The cinematic experience should rouse the social consciousness of the audience. Amma Ariyan is an open letter from a pampered child to his mother and it is a letter from all those of my generation who cannot communicate. I am writing on behalf of them to Mother.”

In the premature death of John Abraham, Kerala’s New Cinema, which has had a profound impact on filmmakers and audiences throughout India, lost one of its brightest and most original practitioners. The word ‘original’ is being used with a definite view in mind, for one heard the criticism, after Amma Ariyan, that it resembled Ghatak’s last film too closely for some people’s comfort. Yes, Abraham was influenced by Ghatak, which the former readily conceded with a touch of unmistakable pride, but he never imitated Ghatak: he was too gifted for that. Abraham was too much of an artist and an individualist to imitate anyone. Like all original artists, he would take whatever he needed from one or more sources and then mould these according to his own artistic notions and political needs; according to his own vision of place and people, of ideology and history.

In fact, we ought to miss constantly original men and elevated artists like John Abraham or his beloved Ritwik-da who meant the world to him, a blessed icon, if we are to defeat the mediocrity currently invading our regional cinemas. If the Naxalite movement was aimed at radical political change, the small band of artists that sought to record different aspects and delicate nuances of that movement may be said to have infused fresh and challenging visions into the country’s largely moribund film scene.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.



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