You know me, Mother, don’t you.
You know everything about me.
I will keep you informed about everything that I come across,
until the end of the journey.
Just see for yourself,
my paths; the sights that have been waiting me on my way…
Lives have been sacrificed all through this deserted path of mine.
I am currently in the throes of research for my PhD project on Indian Parallel Cinema and have started to view films that I may potentially use for my thesis. Amma Ariyan holds somewhat of a Holy Grail status for me. I had always wanted to see this final film by Malayalam director John Abraham but whenever I stumbled upon copies they were always unwatchable. I really can’t believe I have waited such a long time to see Amma Ariyan, and what a film it is. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, Amma Ariyan is located amongst the second wave of Malayalam cinema and John Abraham’s emergence coincided with the international success of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a leading light of the movement. I am declaring it a masterpiece because I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the canon of regional parallel cinema, Indian art cinema or more broadly speaking in the field of Indian cinema.
While some contend Hindi cinema entered one of its worst periods in the 1980s, although I am not persuaded by such an argument especially when you reason Parallel Cinema was at its peak, in Malayalam Cinema there was a ‘qualitative growth’ brought on by ‘Film Cooperatives, the harbinger of which was the Chitralekha cooperative which commissioned a full fledged production complex for struggling filmmakers on the outskirts of Trivandrum’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). Furthermore, the collective reach of a new generation of filmmakers who opted for low budgets and location shooting helped Malayalam Cinema break away from the Madras film industry and ‘establish its own identity in Kerala’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). The more I look at Malayalam Cinema in the 1970s and beyond it is clear there was an ideological engagement with politics on a didactic level that led to some very polemical works. The willingness to engage with political themes of the day articulates the political literacy and politicization of life in Kerala itself.
John Abraham only made four films before he suddenly passed away in 1987. He hailed from a middle class orthodox family, although his father ‘used to be associated with an underground political movement’, and he started watching films at the age of 15 which ignited an interest in cinema. Joining the Pune Film Institute in 1965 John Abraham worked as an assistant for Mani Kaul on Uski Roti, a film that he later admitted was a formalist exercise, accusing Kaul of having ‘drained out the sentimentalism’ from the story. Strangely enough the temporal-spatial disjuncture of Kaul is present in the elliptical frissions of Amma Ariyan. It was the Bengali triptych of Ray, Ghatak and Sen who had a major influence on his approach to cinema and one can witness such influences in Amma Ariyan’s hybridity, discordantly mixing tradition, radicalism and morality into a loose, episodic stream of consciousness. The international influences are just as discernable especially in the astonishing handheld, deep focus camerawork that recalls both Third Cinema (this could be regarded as a film about the process of decolonization) and Cuban Cinema including Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba/I am Cuba (1964). Abraham’s major achievement was not his films but the ‘Odessa Movies’ collective, which he helped to form in 1984 as a way of working in parallel to the mainstream and offering alternate distribution-exhibition provision. It also meant Odessa were able to screen alternate Indian films in schools and other public places in the context of film education: ‘Once we screened Potemkin in a bus stand. Around 1500 people came to watch it’, recollects John Abraham. In fact, financing for Amma Ariyan was raised through the 16mm films that Odessa distributed, collecting Rs 10 from viewers. This was grassroots cinema indeed and in some respects Amma Ariyan does feel close to Third Cinema especially in terms of its staunchly Marxist address. Here is John Abraham on the rationale behind making Amma Ariyan:
‘Despite all theories and philosophies, our culture teaches us that the destruction of the woman/the mother results in the destruction of humanity. This was the idea behind Amma Ariyan. I believe that mothers should be told about the problems that we face in our lives as men. Their responses to them might offer solutions to a lot of them. In other words, without awakening our mothers, it is impossible to achieve our goals. All our epics tell us the same. The materialistic world modern seems to have forgotten this’.
The story of Amma Ariyan is set against the backdrop of Kerala in which the Naxalite movement had petered out and the cost of political extremism was being measured and reflected upon especially by a directionless youth. One such youth is Purushan (Joy Mathew), a bearded, introspective cipher. He is on his way to Delhi when he sees the dead body of Hari, a percussionist (tabla player) and political Naxalite activist. At first Purushan is unable to identify the body, as he is not entirely sure if it is Hari. As he begins his journey to inform Hari’s mother of her son’s death he calls upon Hari’s friends who not only confirm the dead body is that of Hari but also unite with him in marching to Cochin to deliver the news. John Abraham says the ‘the film is structured as chapters in the form of reports’, which are typically delivered from the perspective of a character that segues into a flashback detailing their own memories of political histories and of Hari. Abraham embues the film with mysticism, using elisions in the editing, through the flashbacks, inserts, juxtapositions of nature, digressions into monologues, creating an organic rhythm. Purushan’s determination to inform Hari’s mother raises a collective that works as a breathless political image: their animated presence punctuating the rural landscapes in what becomes a road movie narrative. The reports come together as a record of dissent, resistance and injustice, but it is always dissent that Abraham celebrates in many of the reports such as the recollection of workers taking back rice and sugar from the capitalist merchants and redistributing at a fair price.
In what is one of the great endings I have come across to an Indian film, the group of young men who have marched to Cochin to deliver the terrible news of Hari’s death, most probably at the hands of the police, culminates in Abraham’s realisation of ‘awakening’ matriarchy by having Hari’s mother turn to the camera with the men crowded behind her, metonymically speaking the sons of Mother India, removing her spectacles to wipe away the tears. As she does so, Abraham cuts to a cinema screen replaying the same moment to what appears to be an audience of spectators. Cinema, reality, politics, coalesce, shattering to reveal an empty void, a terrifying silence, but an illusion, far out of our grasp, and its like Abraham seems to be laughing at us, for having thought that any semblance of optimism might exist is simply obfuscated by drawing on the cruelty of a self reflexive gesture. Like Ghatak and Shahani before him, John Abraham most pertinently draws on the epic form. In fact, this is a cinema about ‘walking’, an action that Abraham embues with a blatant political value. I have merely touched the surface of what is an extraordinary work, a complex one that demands further analysis, distribution and canonization.