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John Abraham with G Aravindan, Punalur Rajan Photographs
John Abraham and G Aravindan | Photographer © Punalur Rajan

Derailed Camera

Remembering John Abraham

By Lt. Uduman Mohaideen (Minnal) | Translated by Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Late Uduman Mohaideen, who went by the pseudonym Minnal (literally meaning lightning), was most known as a Tamil film critic, journalist and producer but has also worked as a cartoonist and production manager among other jobs. Initially wanting to become a painter, he was good at drawing and came into contact with cinema through a chance to work in the art department of Kudumba Vilakku (Family Lantern). His connections with the Dravidian Politics and the Communist party in Tamil Nadu was pivotal in his career, having received his initial break with the help of MGR (and the DMK part before its split) and later working for Janasakthi, a journal published by the Communist party, over a long period. During his service at Janasakthi, he contributed much to the growth and popularity of film criticism and reporting in Tamil. His work as a producer in cinema is limited to a few films, the most relevant of which is perhaps is his first film Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (Oh Students Come! Come!), the Malayalam film directed by John Abraham.

John Abraham died on May 31, 1987. He had already become a cult figure in Kerala and was noted even in the national level for his iconoclastic films. A product of the turbulent cultural circumstances in Kerala in the 60s and 70s – which owe much to the radical left politics and the reaction to the emergency of 1975 – John’s life as well as art was marked by what is described often as a rejection of all possible cultural norms and customs; although it is difficult to accept such claims fully. John worked with Aravindan and Mani Kaul, and their influences are clearly visible in John’s films as well. Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile was John’s debut film, one which he later went on to say was undertaken because of a need to gain a foothold in the cinema circles.

The producer of Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile, Minnal, includes a chapter on John in his memoir titled Vilaki Odiya Camera (Derailed Camera). The memoir was originally published in Tamil.

The Editor

I used to work as a cartoonist, journalist and film critic at the Janasakthi journal. Later, I started my own ad company. It was during this time that my interest in Cinema began to deepen.

When my desire to produce a movie became intense, I decided to make it in Malayalam. Having watched several films from around the world as well as films by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Bimal Roy and others in the film societies, I was particular to produce a movie in that style. Most of the Malayalam movies were being produced in that standard.

A young and upcoming director called P N Menon caught my attention. I was impressed by his movies such as Chemparathi (Hibiscus), Olavum Theeravum (Waves and Shores). I looked around and caught hold of him. He was joined by the already-famous Malayalam Poet and songwriter Vayalar Rama Varma. Serious – and I mean very serious – “story” discussion happened over bottles after bottles (of alcohol).To my horror, the pile of bottles became larger, but the story never came.

Vayalar Rama Varma telephoned and asked Sri Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai to join the team. Vayalar thought that the presence of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai would bring forth a good story. However, in this party as well, only the pile of empty bottles was growing… with no sign of a satisfactory story.

One person sensed my frustration. It was Azad, a screenplay writer who graduated from the film institute (in Pune). He was also part of P N Menon’s group. He had already directed a movie with Mammootty. He asked, “Sir, I have a friend in Mumbai. He is working on a film called Uski Roti (Their Daily Bread) with Mani Kaul. He is very talented. Shall we call him?  I replied hastily, “Make arrangements for him to come immediately”.

John Abraham came to Chennai. If we make a movie on Jesus, John can act as Jesus. He looked so beautiful and graceful. One cameraman, one assistant and Azad became part of this team.

Gone!! This is also a drunken monk case. On top of it, Ganja and other intoxicants.

But John had this habit of drinking continuously for four days, and then sleeping off the next four days. After waking up, he will work endlessly – without food, drink, sleep and rest. If there is no work, then the same routine starts. Again, he would drink and drink, non-stop.

Somehow, they developed a good story. A group of school children were the focus of the story. The title of the movie was Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile. It was Vayalar Rama Varma who decided the title. “Oh students, come come!!” is the meaning of the title.

I had set-up the office for the team at Mahalingapuram. Director, cameraman and all the assistants were staying there. I had organized a cook, who would prepare food for them. They finished the script and selected the actors. Madhu, Jayabharathi, Adoor Bhasi, S V Ranga Rao, M R R Vasu, Manorama and fifteen to twenty children.

I was not sure whether the direction team had any knowledge of music at that time. This was the period when Ilayaraja was trying to enter the cinema world. His elder brother Pavalar Varatharajan was a close friend of mine. After his younger brothers came to Chennai, somehow, Baskar became very attached to me.  He would often record his brothers’ compositions in a tape and play for us. The music didn’t impress John Abraham and his group. Alright. I also felt that an experienced hand will be better for them. I asked Vayalar Rama Varma whether we could ask M B Srinivasan who was very popular in making music for art house films. ”He is the best choice”, Vayalar exclaimed. For Vayalar’s words, M B Srinivasan composed the music. With his excellent music, we recorded four songs.

The shooting began in a small house in CIT colony, near Nanthanam. Initially I was very scared watching their style of working. I was familiar with shootings that happen in big studios with magnificent sets, hundreds of lights and fast and efficient labour. I felt great fear and doubt watching John Abraham and his team.

The whole set was just a small room. The director, assistants and actors were moving about haphazardly in this room. There were only two or three small lights; and, some camera equipments. They tied a thin mosquito net on the roof of the room and made light fall on the net. It was then made to reflect on the actors. This, they shot. The name of the cameraman was Ramachandra Babu. He must be twenty two or twenty three. I was shocked as they were calling this small boy a cameraman. There was no make-up for the actors. Will it work out this way? How will the actors’ faces look? I was perplexed. All these doubts were put to rest when I saw the rush prints made from a week’s shooting.

Like this, the shooting went on in small houses, slum areas, narrow lanes, streets and a school in Adayar. They didn’t enter a studio even once during this whole time. In between, there will be episodes of ‘going back to square one’. John would get drunk with Ganja or arrack and start running madly from street to street, road to road. At times, the nearby cinema company workers would find him lying on the streets and carry him back. At other times, he will be locked up in station. If the Sub Inspector is known to me, or a compassionate one, I will receive a call.

John Abraham at the set of Vidhyarthikale Ithile Ithile (Producer Minnal is seen at the far left)
John Abraham at the set of Chiriyachande Krura Krithyangal
1. John Abraham at the set of Vidhyarthikale Ithile Ithile (Producer Minnal is seen at the far left) | Photographer Unknown 2. John Abraham at the set of Chiriyachande Krura Krithyangal | Photographer Unknown | Image source – Internet

The story of the movie is this. While playing, some school children break a statue. The school management asks the students who had broken the statue to raise money to compensate the loss. The children roam all over the town and try to raise the money. The Director suggested that it will be good to have scene in which the children could ask for donation from MGR, Shivaji or Prem Nazir. Shivaji and Prem Nazir refused immediately. MGR was in good contact with me. I met him during an interval, while Ulakam Sutrum Valiban (The Globetrotting Youngster) was being shot. When I informed about the movie and the scene, he was slightly interested because it was a Malayalam movie. However, after a brief silence, he said No to my request by saying, “I have recently refused R M Veerappam who asked me to do a guest role. If I act in your movie he will take it very wrongly.”

So, after this we had contacted A P Nagarajan. His film Thiruvarutchelvar was being shot at Vijaya Studio. He agreed, and the scene in which the children were receiving donation from A P Nagarajan was shot here.

Apart from this scene, the entire shooting was completed without entering any studio.

Because of my background in journalism, my fellow journalists gave good promotion to the movie.

Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi’s father Gopinatha Pillai was the distributor in Kerala.

Within two days of releasing the movie, the Kerala Government exempted the movie from entertainment tax. After knowing that this is a movie about children, the then Education Minister Mohammed Koya had seen the movie in a theatre and recommended the exemption.

It received the best National award for screenplay, background music, best comedian (for Manorama) during a film festival in Delhi. The jury also recommended that the government must dub it in Hindi and play it in all schools.

Comrade Baladandayutham MP who was advocating with the Central Government died in a plane crash, which put a halt to this.

Screen, a magazine published by Indian Express Group (Mumbai) and Cine Advance from Kolkata wrote articles praising the movie.

While making a movie, the producer faces many a hassle.  Like that, I also faced many. But the most difficult was John Abraham’s addiction.

My troubles as a producer could be compared to that of a woman who undergoes a lot of challenges and pains during pregnancy. But she forgets everything and rejoices when her baby is born. In the same way, after the movie release, all the pains and troubles I had undergone were forgotten.

Even though the movie was not a commercial success, I didn’t incur any financial loss. Moreover, it was exactly the way I wanted it to be, and brought me much praise and fame. So, I was very happy and content.

John Abraham
John Abraham | Photographer (?) | Image source – Internet

Story of a revolutionary

Vidhyarthikale Ithile Ithile was produced in the year 1972. After this John directed three movies, in 1978, 1980, 1986. In 1987, he died.

Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Colony) received the National award for best Tamil movie. The movie that was made in the year 1980 was called Cheriyachante Kroorakruthayangal (Cruel Deeds of Cheriyachan). Adoor Bhasi received Kerala State Best Actor Award for his performance in it.

In 1986, John was involved in the making of Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother).

He is celebrated for all these three movies.

All the three movies were rejected by distributors and didn’t reach the theatres in any significant manner.

Intellectuals and film societies enjoy the movies in private. They discussed, criticized, and praised endlessly.

Like that of upper class intellectuals, who gather as film societies in Chennai and other cities and watch the best films from around the world, a society in a totally new form was being developed in Kerala. It was the progressive leftists, who brought together the lower class people and developed a movement called Odessa. Using a 16mm projector and a small screen, they project the best films collected from different states. They collect one rupee or two rupee from the public.

John Abraham joined this movement.

The Odessa group that comprised of 75 members, using the money collected from the people, travel from Wayanad to Kochi and Amma Ariyan develops, parallel to the political history of Kerala. The public, apart from giving money, were also involved in the film production. They did it voluntarily, with a lot of enthusiasm. The screenplay and dialogues were written then and there, and shot. Commercial actors didn’t play a major role in this movie.

The members of Odessa movement screened this movie for more than 2000 times in almost all the villages of Kerala. It was only through this movie that John Abraham becomes a people’s filmmaker. He is acknowledged as somebody who makes movies for the poor. His persona has finally unfolded. It was screened in the Film Festival in Delhi. It also received National award. It also gets to be screened internationally in film festival and other such venues. One group was acclaiming Amma Ariyan. But there was another group that argued that John Abraham didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Many criticisms came its way –it is technically weak; has no aesthetics, not even at its very basic level; cinematography is not good; it looks like a documentary; editing is not properly done; has no standard to be screened in film festivals; no elegance etc., were put forth by those who were vehemently against this movie.

Agraharathil Kazhuthai, Cheriyachante Kroorakruthyangal also received similar criticism, although at different platforms. With praises and criticism, John Abraham received the status of a hero. The media surrounded him. Many journals and newspapers published his interviews, with his photos.

John Abraham addressing the gathering and artists during a Naikali performance in Fort Kochi, © Abul Kalam Azad
John Abraham addressing the gathering and artists during a Naikali performance in Fort Kochi, © Abul Kalam Azad

Amma Ariyan was produced in the year 1986. The next year, in the end of May, John died in an accident.

Do you know how?

John Abraham was drinking with his friends in the topmost floor of a building. In the Tamil movie Muthal Mariyathai (Prima Honor), Bharathiraja had sung a song ‘Antha nilavaithaan naan kaiyila pidichen’ (I caught the moon in my hand…). In the visuals, the reflection of the moon in the river is shown and then hero catches the moon in his hands. But John, saying that “he is going to catch the real moon from the sky” jumps off the building. He never recovered from this accident.

Once, P N Menon was going through a very difficult phase financially. He had no work. Vayalar Rama Varma decided to give a shock treatment.

A big bus company owner was discussing a movie with Vayalar Rama Varma. This was in Kerala. Vayalar asked him to buy an expensive scotch whisky. He also did the same. Vayalar called P N Menon and asked to come immediately. Within half an hour, P N Menon arrived. Vayalar gave the whisky bottle to P N Menon. Seeing the bottle, P N Menon was so excited. What a great drink, he exclaimed and hugged the bottle and planted a firm kiss on the bottle.

At this point, Vayalar introduced the bus company owner to P N Menon and said, “He has come to discuss a movie. Considering your difficult position, I thought of giving that movie to you. Will you be able to work on it?”

“I will definitely do, my guru!” replied P N Menon, with a lot of respect.

“If you really want to do that movie, you must do one thing”, Vayalar said, and paused for a while looking at P N Menon.

“Whatever it is, my guru. Tell me, I will do it.”, replied Menon.

“You have to break this bottle. If you do it, this movie is yours. Otherwise, you can take this bottle and go home.”, said Vayalar.

Menon didn’t think even for a moment. He went to the middle of the road and threw the bottle down. It broke into pieces.

If only John had survived that accident,

Like P N Menon got Vayalar, John would have also got somebody to help him…

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi

Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi is an independent writer and film-maker. She has more than a decade of experience working with leading National and International Non-Government Organisations in India, Africa, and South America. She is the Founder Managing Trustee of Ekalokam Trust for Photography and the Executive Editor of PhotoMail.

Published on June 2, 2018


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