Where are the John Abraham ’s of Kerala gone?
By V K Cherian,
John Abraham (August 11, 1937 - 31 May 1987) was a Malayalam film director and writer. John Abraham studied at FTII, Pune and was trained by Ritwik Ghatak. Considered anavant-garde film director and writer, he produced only four films, namely Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, 1972; Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Tamil), 1977; CheriachanteKrurakrithyangal, 1979; and Amma Ariyan, 1986. It was under the leadership of John Abraham that Odessa Movies came to existence in 1986. It was an attempt by a group of movie enthusiasts to change the history of film production and distribution by making it a collaborative effort with the public and thus act as an empowering and liberating medium. Their first film, Amma Ariyan, was produced with contributions from the general public and the film was screened on a non-commercial basis throughout the state. Abraham was an alcoholic, and died after falling from the rooftop of a building in Kozhikode. John Abraham has a cult following in his home state of Kerala because of his revolutionary way of life, and those who were close to him swear by his humanist qualities. He was convinced of the value of using the power of cinema to change society.
Excerpts from an online biography of John Abraham.
An open letter to KN Shaji- former Editor of Samkramanam, popular little magazine of 70s and 80s and Editor of the book” John Abraham”.
Hope all are well with you and your health. Though, we have not met for years now, common fiends tell me that you are confined to your home near Nagercoil and not active in the cultural field which you were till late 80s, before your marriage.
Years before after his untimely death, you asked me write a piece for the commemorative book which you brought out on our great friend John Abraham, but I did not. Today when I was reminded of John and his impending death anniversary , through a remarks on Malayanadu, I took that book from my personal collection and read it again. I felt intensely remorseful for not having written that chapter on a film enthusiasts experience and learning’s from John.
As you know the world was different till John died in 1987 May 31, when he was 49 years of age. I still keep the obituary piece I wrote about him, in Hindustan Times, which my friend Anil Sari published with a colour picture of John. Soviet Union was still a world power and Internet was not born. John and lot of us still were dreaming of a possible change of the world to the left side. Now we are in a world without John and Soviet Union and all that they stood for. And when I did a Google search for John Abraham, a good able bodied muscular bollywood actor emerged in the Internet. The world, it seems has been reduced to one of the famous joke of John Abraham. Only few of us and his friends, some film enthusiasts remember our John Abraham, frail bodied, with a dirty beard, but with a sparkling naughty eyes, waiting to crack a joke on any situation, ready to recite the entire paragraph from “ Hundred years of Solitude”, remember each shots and situations from a films of maestros like Ritwik, DeSilva, Fellini,Solanos etc, even after he is dead drunk. Cry with tears in his eyes talking about Ritwik Ghatak and his days in Pune, Film and TV Institute. Only recently, I surprised my South African friends reciting John’s famous song” free free Mandela”.
I am writing to you from a new platform, as active as may be “ Samkramanam”, the little magazine and Niyogam books, which you initiated and run till late 80s. The little magazine’s and coffee house discussions have turned “virtual” and are now on the Internet. But, one finds hardly any John Abraham, to enthuse, inspire and also confuse us, from our established norms and ways of looking at the world and force us to find the world new and contribute to the world from our own platforms. Well meaning people easily get offended, if you decide to post a different opinion on an online discussion. People have no qualms to be rude and can be stupidly stubborn and insult others, even in writing. Think of John escaping from the worst of situations with a small joke or with a quip and without a rude word. I have told you earlier, about the tragic comic situation of the seminar, we organized in Kayamkulam in late 70s. We could not have the seminar with John, as a political meeting in the adjoining hall of the school never stopped on time. All of us were helpless and waiting it to see the end of the political meeting. John, the main speaker stood calm and realizing our tension he said at one point”, Havoo he (the political speaker) has started talking about incident in 1970s now he has only one decade left”, and none of us could resist our smile.
Shaji, why is it so, that such self less, totally dedicated, free birds do not arrive in our cultural and public platforms to enthuse and challenge us with their wit and wisdom. It is just 23 years since John has passed away from our midst and the legacy of John at least in drinking stays in Kerala, but not his bold and free thinking about the society and cultural forms which all of us got inspired in many ways. Are we not becoming more conservative, rigid and more parochial in our attitudes? Or is it just my imagination?
When, I hear the news that Malayalees spent about Rs 2 crores on liquor for Vishu, I remember John taking Rs. 20 from me for his morning drink at the Thiruvanathapuram railway station and also his famous quip, “ Jesus was the only one who walked over water( vellam),now I too walk over water!!!”.Now we can joke” the entire Kerala is walking on water”!
What made John an iconic figure? Was it his life of commitment to various cultural forms to communicate to people? Was it the subjects of the film and its format, whose production was too complex for a bohemian like him to handle? Or his humanist thinking, which made him different from all of his contemporaries? He believed in friends, and fellow human beings, irrespective of class or any other discriminations and but for his drinking habit was innocent like a child in most ways, all of us who knew him will vouch.
I remember John’s contemporary,Adoor Gopalakrishnan telling me after his death. “All of us were jealous of him, as none of us had a following like him among the youngsters of Kerala or for that matter among the serious film viewing community”. And still you and I know John had no camps and he was equally at ease with Adoor and Aravindan. I do remember, that no University or college film appreciation camps were not complete without John or his film and private drinking sessions.
I am sure you remember the preview of “ Cheriyachante Kroorakrithangal” , which was organized by Samkramanam and how John began to visit your office at Spensor junction at Thiruvanathapuram. I remember Priyadas, your Executive Editor at Samkramanam getting excited about John, as more and more bearded angry looking young people were frequenting your office. The joke was that the cultural whose who, is no longer having coffee at the plush coffe shop opposite Tagore Theatre,Nikujam, but at Coffee House at Spensor junction next to University College, since Samkramanm office was where John and many others were visible often those days.
Looking back what was John to all of us? Was he someone we all wanted to be in future? Leave everything of daily life in pursuit of one’s intellectual/artistic goals? Were we comfortable with his life of no food and all drink habit? Lot of us drank with him, so that he did not drink that much. But, has any one seen John misbehaving with anybody, after his drinks or for that matter hearing an impolite or a rude word from him. Did anyone hear any dirty sexual jokes from him? None of his friends can recollect such an embarrassing instance with John, I am sure. I clearly remember John teasing the toddy shop owner in Kazhakootam , near Kariyavattom University campus, when the city had the poster’s of his film” Cheriayachatne kroorakrithangal”. He suddenly burst out, to our surprise, inside the toddy shop, saying what all mad people exist in this world! “See there is a film called Cheriyachante ………” The toddy shop owner was not so convinced about the madness of John himself and kept staring at us.
Madness was ingrained in John. Madness about humanity, films, fine art, politics of left, a free world, free religion, interpersonal relationships, literature, friends and all. There was no John for John Abraham. He existed for others truly. He taught with his words, life and films to look at the world from a totally” mad” point of view. A madness, we all loved to have and keep for our life. As someone joked John’s shabby look, his dirty beard led to a wave of bearded youngsters in Kerala. Thank God no baber’s association asking for “ nokucooli” from bearded men. He glamorized a bohemian life style for a generation, though none of his followers had the intellectual capability of John. He had made four feature films, but they remain landmarks in their own right, though with lot of technical imperfections, which are inbuilt in to his style of work. Only John can write, sorry dictate, a short story like “ Kottayathu ethra mathaimar”. Whatever be his other demerits John’s commitments made him an avatar. An avatar to inspire people into freedom of thought, speech and public good, indeed! John stood for good cinema and its appreciation and making the good film movement of Kerala a people’s one. I am sure you recall that he was planning a film called “ Nanmayil Gopalan”before his death. Despite his bohemian life style, he kept his “ goodness” –nanma- in him. And we all remember him as an iconic figure with the legacy of life and film he had left for all of us.
Shaji, you spent the life of a nomad for major part of your adult life. I remember, you travelling across North India, Himalayas, occasionally updating me about John and other friends in Kerala. A telephone call from a common friend of Priyadas brought me all those past memories. I had a chat with Priyan, after may be, 25 years.
I think, we all grew up as link generation in post independent India, to our parents who saw a historic struggle which freed India. We were fortunate to have lot of optimistic people around us, who were hell bent on making India a better place to live. We grew up with people like John inspiring us into be better human beings with finer cultural and social values. I am just wondering where have all that John Abraham’s gone in Kerala? Samkramanan and Niyogam having done its bit; I know you have taken a back seat and relaxing at home after years of struggle caught up with you as illness. But I am sure we share the same concerns about social and cultural things, which were dear to us. I am sure you also loved to know where such people like John Abraham has gone from Kerala.
I am sure you will agree with me that the John Abraham’s of the world made Kerala what it is or was ; an interesting, vibrant and positive place to live.
Wishing you best of health
( KN Shaji was the editor of one of the most popular little magazine-Samkramanam- of 70s and 80s published from Aluwa and Trivandrum and he now lives near Nagarkoil, in Tamil Nadu-when last spotted.)
Please write your comments if any into firstname.lastname@example.org