The Hitler Of Indian Cinema
‘John’ is a beautiful tribute to filmmaker John Abraham
If ever anyone were to write a detailed history of casteist politics in India, it must certainly begin with John Abraham's feature film ‘Donkey in a Brahmin Village’. Or, when writing about death in its varied manifestations, the author should not miss out on the film ‘Amma Ariyan’.
John Abraham was the hero of the post-Emergency campus, his Bohemian lifestyle defied all forms of authority. His anarchism was against capital and power. He always inspired the youth to stand together and fight against it.
But his addiction to drink was as strong as his addiction to cinema. He called himself "The Hitler of Indian Cinema" because his films were unlike what we had witnessed till then.
John Abraham was an activist, self-confessed Communist, poet, theatre person and filmmaker who broke every rule in the book of cinema through his films. He revolutionised the money-centric exhibition and distribution system in cinema by creating his own.
John Abraham had a rather early death in a tragic accident. He slipped from the terrace of a building, was caught hanging between two buildings through wires, fell down and died in hospital after a few days.
In 1986, a year before his tragic death, John Abraham used an unconventional route to drum up funds for what would turn out to be his final production. He made the film ‘Amma Ariyan’ (Report to Mother) by going with his group from village to village, playing drums, putting up skits and short plays, and screening films.
They took along a bucket for people to make contributions in. The money collected was poured into the production. “People could contribute anything from Re 1 to Rs 500, and thus was made one of the first crowd-funded films in India.
He made what he called people’s cinema. Everyone was a producer,” said film analyst, filmmaker and critic Prem Chand.
‘Amma Ariyan’ is the only south Indian film in BFI's top 10 Indian films, one of the first crowdfunded films in Malayalam. It was the last film by the legendary director John Abraham. His Odessa movement showed the world that cinema was possible with crowdfunding, rejecting the capital that made cinema impossible.
Premchand has made a beautiful film on John Abraham, simply titled ‘John’. The feature-length film, defies any category definition, it straddles the paths of documentary, fiction, surrealism. It is an ode to nature much like the life, struggles and dreams of John Abraham himself.
Premchand does not call his film a biographical documentary but a visual tribute to a filmmaker he knew quite closely and interacted with for many years. He uses clips from Abraham’s two films in his own film ‘John’. It explains quite succinctly, Abraham’s personal hate for casteist schisms in the villages of India and also, his perspective on the reality of the death of a young man whose body remains unclaimed in a morgue as his mother, his sole relative, has no information about his death though the film ‘Amma Ariyan’.
‘Agraharathil Kazhuthai’ (Donkey in a Brahmin Village) represents not only the Indian working class, but specifically the majority Bahujans (oppressed castes) of the nation. The donkey is a working animal, much like how the Bahujans are the productive foundation of India.
But once a little girl begins to take care of the donkey, after its mother is killed by upper-caste youngsters in the village, it becomes a terrible shock for the powerful Brahmins living in the same village. They treated the Bahujans as cattle, to serve them as underpaid or unpaid labour, untouchable, unheard and unsung.
‘Amma Ariyan’ follows Purushan, a young man preparing to leave for Delhi for his research. While travelling in Wayanad, he meets some policemen who are carrying an unidentified dead body found hanging on the wayside.
Though he can't recognize the dead man, he feels the face is familiar. Is this 'familiarity' a metaphor for the anonymous life and death of politically rebellious youngsters in Kerala? Or, is it a reflection of himself that Purushan sees in the death of this young man lying in the morgue as no one has come to claim the body?
The thought makes him restless, subsequently leading into an obsession for finding out who the dead man was. He abandons his trip to Delhi and meets with several of his friends and acquaintances to find out who the dead person is. He discovers that the deceased was Hari, a tabla player.
He decides to go back to inform Hari's mother about her son's death. His journey towards where she lives gathers crowds who move along with him and becomes a revelation for him about the turbulent political happenings through small towns and villages within and right across the state of Kerala then.
The film probes into John’s life through kindled memoirs of his comrades working both on and behind the screen such as Ramachandran Mokeri, Harinarayanan, Madhu Master, A. Nandhakumar, his sister Shantha, Shobheendran master, Chelavoor Venu, Jeevan Thomas, Shuhaib, Deepak Narayanan, Arun Punalur, Rajagopal, Prakash Bare, and several others.
The making of the film went through many hiccups because the seniors who acted in the film and were very close to John Abhraham, died during the shooting and this cut into the time of completion of the film.
"John Abraham's Odessa movement showed the world that cinema was possible with crowdfunding, rejecting the capital that made cinema impossible. Being part of that movement, I earnestly felt the spirit should continue. Through ‘John’, I was trying to pay my tribute to John Abraham in a humble way," Premchand said.
This feature-length film is truly a visual tribute and also an audio one as it carries a rich, soulful and restrained music track. It is filled with the sound of percussion instruments, often captured on the sandy shores of what appears to be a sea. It is enriched with beautiful visuals of birds in flight taken in long shots, or shots of colourful kites grazing the azure blue sky, branches of the banyan tree offering shade, or plenty of boats sailing across the seas.
“John Abraham was also a playwright. ‘Naikkali’ is a famous street play. Execution of the revolutionary scene is in memory of John Abraham's dream project ‘Kayiyur’ which did not happen though it had many script versions. Fellini said that cinema is like a circus. John's life was like a trapeze act in a circus. John falling to his death from an unfinished building is a sign of life as a circus,” Premchand said.
“‘John’ was completed in ten years. Deedi Damodaran, my partner, completed the script in 2013. But none of the established producers were willing to support such an art house film which would not be profitable if invested. Then I had to approach Kerala State Film Development Corporation. With the aid of their package my daughter Muktha funded the film.
“The shooting was completed in 2018. But then the flood and Covid stopped the movie. Meanwhile, Harinarayanan, Madhumaster, Nandakumar and Ramachandran Mokeri, the four actors who played lead roles passed away. That made any mending work on sync sound through dubbing impossible. We started in 2013 and the film was censored in 2022. The movie hit theaters on May 31, 2023, John Abraham's 36th Remembrance Day,” he added.
Srivatsan J Menon, a classical vocalist and musician, wrote the beautiful music for the film. The only suggestion given was that the film needed music that combines sound and silence, as John Abraham was held invisible in ‘John’, but his presence was to pervade in the movie and has to be felt.
The film is a conversation between John and his father. He was buried in his father's grave. During that conversation, John hears screams, he leaves the grave and visits his friends on earth. Returning to the grave to discover that the living have not died as long as they have in their memories.
‘John’ is a beautiful tribute to the director John Abraham - the iconoclast of Indian cinema. The film moves through the last three days of dramatic drunken mirth in the life of John Abraham. He was reportedly singing his last song, as he tripped from an unfinished building which bears a clear metaphorical implication to his life.