AMMA ARIYAN (Report to Mother) Dir. John Abraham, 1986, Malayalam

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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LAND AND FREEDOM (Dir. Ken Loach, 1995, UK/Spain/Germany/Italy) – Transformative Political Cinema

The POUM militia – The Workers Party of Marxist Unification.
‘Come, join in the only battle wherein no man can fail,

Where whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.’

The cinema of Loach is transformative. What this means is that his way of looking at reality, which is through a leftist internationalist political prism, is one that can alter the manufactured and largely consensual reality of the spectator who has been normalised into adopting apolitical conformist ideology. So much of mainstream cinema is intrinsically connected to the idea of the market that dissent is suppressed in favour of maintaining a derisory status quo in which materialistic ideals are aggressively promoted as a mass aspiration. Some mainstream filmmakers and industries justify the transparent propagation of the market as entertainment for the masses because apparently film should be viewed as an escapist and sensory medium. Such an obviously conformist position points to a cowardice and subjugation that is implicit in the way a film is produced, marketed and celebrated in the media at large. Any kind of political critique can rarely occur in the same space in which the film is celebrated because the media and subsequently film discourse tends to be patented by an infectious and at times myopic Euro centric agenda. What this means is that limited ways of thinking about certain films, genres and narratives circulate, thus political cinema specifically becomes obfuscated so much that its absence from critical discourse makes it appear unimportant and insignificant to the common perceptions of film. The worst kind of mainstream Hollywood cinema seems to give the impression of empowering the spectator when in fact it is asking us to obey and validate wider ideological ideals that contradict our own criticisms of the market. The film spectator is not merely gazing but fully participating in the spectacle of the market by maintaining the processes, thus transforming spectatorship into a secondary narrative that mirrors the fictional one. It seems almost sacrilege to accuse postmodern mashup artists such as Quentin Tarantino of dissolving ideology and rendering it obsolete because their work have become embedded within the history of film as beatnik bricolage, which means his films are hip yet apparently sophisticated given the depth of the intertextual discourse on display for our instantaneous diverted spectator like minds to savour. And savour we do, with the instantaneous preoccupations of a YouTube browser. If the market dictates what kinds of films are made and which are distributed then where exactly does Ken Loach fit in this corporatist universe? 

To begin with, filmmakers who usually have something overly political to articulate as part of an on going participatory discourse find it virtually impossible to work in the mainstream because of market regulations – this means that iconoclasm can only exist in a designated vacuum aimed at supposedly marginalised tastes. Another mismatch when it comes to political filmmakers is that they are usually middle class. The political disconnect between someone as middle class as Loach propagating politics of the working class left to a predominately middle class audience is usually a class dialectic that critics are quick to acknowledge in an attempt to skew the argument or to throw in doubt the true intentions of the director. It might actually be more accurate to propose that if Alan Clarke understands the psychology of the working class then Loach understands the politics of such psychology. Is Ken Loach the only British filmmaker to have been able to make a film about the revolutionary militia that took up arms against the fascist takeover of a democratically elected socialist government in Spain? He might be alone in having achieved such a political feat but he has done so on his terms and with collaborator Jim Allen, the film is resolutely political in its entire being. In the context of the market and mainstream cinema, Land and Freedom proves a critical point: transformative cinema functions on the intrinsic relationship between history and politics. The historical context is Spain in the 1930s and the conflict between socialism and fascism may seem likely candidates for points of ideological discussion but Loach politicises the narrative by training his gaze on the internal power struggle that occurred within the communist party of Spain. Additionally and perhaps most importantly the film internationalises the POUM’s revolutionary ideals as a Marxist class struggle. By opening and ending in Liverpool, the story of David Carr (Ian Hart) is interconnected through a working class solidarity that transcends nationality, culture and identity. Upon hearing a talk about the POUM in Liverpool, David volunteers to join the people’s army in Spain. The narrative charts David’s journey as part of the international brigades and his eventual face to face confrontation with Stalinist opposition to the militia, leading to the death of Blanca – a symbol of Marxist ideology. Ken Loach has argued that the rise of fascism was a direct result of Europe’s failure to stand up to Franco. The POUM was a true Marxist group betrayed by Stalinist propaganda, thus sealing the fate of an entire generation. The final reading of a poem by William Morris titled ‘The Day is Coming’, suggests that although the POUM were unsuccessful in their revolutionary aims of collectivism, political integrity and the refusal to compromise are aspects of a dissident ideology that should be celebrated in today’s largely apolitical apathetic society.