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Saturday, February 29, 2020

The legend of John


John Abraham masterminded india's f irst crowd-funded f ilm, amma ariyan, in 1986
SREEKUMAR AT | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi

It was 25 years ago that Malayali filmmaker John Abraham died tragically after falling from a rooftop. He was two and a half months shy of 50 on the day – May 31, 1987. The avant-garde director had made only four features but had done enough as a filmmaker and an iconoclast to pass into Indian cinema folklore.

He was the architect of the Odessa Collective, a people’s cinema movement that was behind India’s first crowd-funded film, Amma Ariyan (1986). To raise money for his fourth film, he travelled from village to village, playing a drum to attract attention, and sought donations from the general public.

His friends, too, pitched in and Amma Ariyan, a complex film woven around the death of a young Naxalite, got made. It was screened on a non-commercial basis across the state.

Abraham remains the patron saint for all those who believe that there is more to this medium than just entertainment. Abraham was one of Indian cinema’s true philosophers. “I am the Hitler of cinema,” he once declared, emphasising the ‘dictatorial’ supremacy of the director.

He learnt his craft at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune under the tutelage of the legendary Ritwik Ghatak. The firebrand student drew inspiration from his teacher and went out into the world with a single-point agenda: never to play by rules set by others.

After assisting another Ghatak acolyte, Mani Kaul, during the making of Uski Roti (1969), he made his first independent film, Vidhyaarthikale Ithile Ithile (This Way, Students, 1972).

He caught the attention of film lovers with his second film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (A Donkey in a Brahmin Ghetto,1977, Tamil), regarded today as a classic.

Ghatak passed away in 1976 and Abraham paid a poetic tribute to his guru thus: “I know that you are no more/But I am alive for you/Believe me, when the seventh seal is opened/I will use my camera as my gun/And I am sure the echo of the sound will reverberate in your bones/And feed back to me for my inspiration”.

Agraharathil Kazhuthai had just the effect that Ghatak would have loved to see. The hard-hitting satire on Brahaminical bigotry and superstition set the cat among the pigeons. Despite winning a National Award, the Tamil film was deprived of a scheduled telecast on Doordarshan as a strong lobby in the southern state wanted a ban on it.

John was not a proponent of neo-realism. His style was very individualistic. At many times, he used fantasy and non-linear narration. He believed that cinema is a separate language and its forms and structures should be set free from literature. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017