Amma Ariyan (1986)
Director: John Abraham; Writer: John Abraham; Cinematographer: Venu; Cast: Joy Mathew, Maji Venkitesh, Nilambur Balan, Harinarayanan, Kunhulakshmi Amma, Itingal Narayani, Nazim, Ramachandran Mokeri, Kallai Balan, Thomas, Venu C. Menon
Duration: 01:50:29; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.321; Volume: 0.153; Cuts per Minute: 6.037
Abraham’s last and most complex film is told in
the form of an open letter from a son, Purushan
(Mathew), to his mother (Kunhulakshmi) while
interweaving fact and fiction with fragments of
memory. Purushan sets out for Delhi with his
friend Paru (Venkitesh), who is researching a
thesis on Durga, the mother goddess, a figure
traditionally though ambiguously representing
the cohesive forces of nature. Along the way
they find a hanged man (Harinarayan) who
seems hauntingly familiar, a suicide.
Reconstructing the identity of the corpse takes
Purushan, and a growing body of young men
who all have a stake in the youth’s history,
from the northern highlands of Kerala to
Southern Cochin and ends with a re-evaluation
of a generation’s radical past. Along the way,
Abraham filmed an actual quarry workers’
strike, echoing Kerala’s troubled 70s, and
manages to endow both the journey and the
central character with broader historical
resonances in a manner reminiscent of the
director’s master, Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti
Takko Aar Gappo (1974): a style full of irony
and with a free-wheelingly innovative
approach to sound and to narrative structures.
The first production of the Odessa group, it
was made entirely through raising funds from
public contributions, supported by the Kerala
State Film Development Corporation.
Abraham’s death, shortly after the film was
made, elevated it to cult status while also
merging together the fate of the director with
that of the main protagonist, both strongly
inflected with Christian themes of innocence
The voice-over is an exhortation to partake in a manifestly political project around the medium of cinema, rather than, for example, in an aesthetic project of ‘alternative cinema for its own sake’. The address is significantly to the audience as a collective; the mellow voice-over (in the voice of Naseem – a member in the Odessa Collective), and the handwritten title cards on the screen, serve as reminders about the film’s positioning itself as counter-cinema.
The characters that the protagonist encounters on his way as he leaves home - like the Brahmin man with a potbelly and a lowered head, the coconut-climber, and a traditional mason, all walking in the opposite direction - present us with a quick panorama of the world that Purushan is leaving behind in the village.
Purushan boards bus from Calicut town bus stand to Wayanad…
Neruda’s poem: Death Alone
The news of the suicide draws the protagonist to withdrawing unto himself, and propels him to abandon his journey to Delhi to pursue research. Suicides and untimely deaths of young artists, writers, and political activists began haunting the intellectual imagination in the region from the 1970s, especially given the context of the political churnings after the Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977, and the police crackdown on Naxalites in the State. This obsession often led to production of cults around many of them. Such narratives of cult figures always drew connections between death, existential crisis, and political nihilism. The cult around John Abraham himself is a classic instance.
John has mentioned in his interviews that he is fascinated with especially “the Dravidian concept of the powerful Hindu Goddess/Devi”, and the cultures of Goddess-worship in India in general. See https://indiancine.ma/documents/AWF
A mild narcissism could be perceived in the way several members associated especially with Odessa Collective, theatre movements in Kerala and People’s Cultural Forum, were cast in the film under their own names, and as themselves. The role of Jayan is played by Jayaprakash who was an active Odessa member. We will get to see more of them as the narrative progresses.
Following Purushan in his journey, we are thrust into the middle of struggles and movements of resistance by people that animate the landscapes he traverses. The scene here is Government Medical College, Calicut, where the medical students are on strike against the moves to privatize medical education in Kerala. This space has a political history: Activists of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi (People’s Cultural Forum) had organized a number of Janakeeya Vicharanas (people’s trials) of corrupt public officials all over Kerala. The most publicized of these trials happened outside the Government Medical College in Calicut where the Vedi members conducted the trial of a medical doctor, known for taking huge amounts of money as bribes from his patients. The doctor was forcefully brought out to the square outside the college, and the trial was conducted in front of the public, including the relatives of the patients admitted in the hospital attached to the college, with one of the activists acting as the judge. Even though the trial received popular support, the members of the Vedi were arrested by the police.
The role of the protest leader is played by Dr Rajan, who is cast as himself in the film.
There is a slight mockery of the all-male intellectual addas with the accompaniment of liquor as clichéd and pretentious, as signified by the repeated uttering of the English expressions “How sad, how sad” and “it’s true, it’s true” by the drunk friends of Balettan. Balettan is played by Nilambur Balan
, who was known as Balettan among Kozhikode theater circles. See also this link
Musician Satyajit’s role is played by Nazim, another member of Odessa Collective, and whose voice we heard in the voice-over in the beginning.,
On the soundtrack is the sopanam music by Neralattu Rama Poduval
, who appears as himself briefly in this sequence.
Caricature of a typical political theater/street theater camp… Ramachandran, the one who leads the camp, is played by Ramachandran Mokeri, a known street theater activist from Kozhikode. The repeated chant "Free Free Nelson Mandela" indicates the radical theatre activism's common espousal of the theme of universal humanism in their interventions. Radical theatre in Kerala attained the aura of an underground theatre movement, and was often accused as propagating the Left extremist thought.
Bird’s eye view of the city, along with the soliloquy on untimely deaths of political activists due to state torture and violence.
Ayyappan is another character playing himself. Ayyappan used to be a CPI(ML) activist and a student of Regional Engineering College (REC), Kozhikode. He studied as junior to Rajan, who was tortured and killed in police custody – a controversial case that generated tremendous amount of outrage, as well as disillusionment with the state, in print media, literature and in mainstream (Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove
) as well as art cinema (Piravi
). A few years after Amma Ariyan was made, Ayyappan went missing and is still absconding.
Madness is another motif used to suggest the margins to which state brutality seems to be driving people. All invocations of the state in the film portray it as a brutalizing entity.
Jump cut to Iringal quarry on the banks of Moorat river, in Kozhikode district. The quarry operated with cheap migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu who had settled there with their families. The voice over recounts the sad plight of Karuppusami (whom we see in the beginning of this sequence as talking to the camera, and later to the group) whose appeal for help was ignored by both the quarry owners as well as trade unions affiliated to mainstream political parties, after he lost his legs in an accident on the work site. The voice-over is in fact a critique of mainly the Left parties in Kerala, accused of having failed to take up such matters. The sequence offers us with a fascinating account of how the labourers organized on their own to fight Karuppusami’s cause successfully.
Jump cut again to Purushan contemplating, and then to a short sequence of Purushan’s mother reciting invocations to Goddess Kali, in the presence of his girlfriend Paru… Significantly, both the sequences so far involving Purushan’s mother and his girlfriend Paru appear as if they could be Purushan’s imagination; the same can be said about the later sequences involving the two too.
Posters of cricketers and movie stars on Hari’s hostel room wall. Gradually, these are replaced by the posters of Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Mao Tse-tung, indicating Hari’s politicization and initiation into the radical Left during his college days.
Abdul Samad from Fort Kochi, another member of Odessa Collective, playing himself, along with his real life mother.
The police station attacks by Naxalites had become stuff of legend in Kerala, producing these activists as simultaneously fascinating as well as frightening figures.
Thomas Ambalavayal playing a Left extremist bearing his own first name. He was actively instrumental in organizing the labour strikes in Iringal, and was a CPI(ML) activist. Thomas is now an environment protection activist based in Wayanad.
The montage involving Purushan’s journey through the landscape of radical politics and people’s movements, interspersed with Paru’s quests to understand the concept of powerful Goddess Kali, is clearly suggestive of an ambition to evolve a cultural-political perspective outside the available frameworks, though this ambition doesn’t seem to bear fruit within the narrative.
The cross cutting between Balan’s sceptical conversation, over country liquor, about how Marxism is practiced in the region, and the group members taking a bath in the river (making them look like a picnic group, according to a few observers) has generated confusion. Interviewers have asked John whether he meant this as a conscious critique of the radical Left as a group of romantics, while John has not agreed to such readings. See https://indiancine.ma/documents/AWF
The subtitle should have read: “…the poorest of the poor will question the a-political intelligentsia of my country,” instead of “political intelligentsia”. The passage being read out aloud by two group members seem to be a critique of existentialist thought in literature and art that gained popularity in Kerala from the 1970s (as exemplified in the works of O V Vijayan, Anand, M Mukundan, Kakkanadan, etc, and in the films of Aravindan. Quoting from Ratheesh Radhakrishnan's thesis
: “The existentialist stream of literature in Kerala was inspired by the Western existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, the works of writers like Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, [as well as] the emergence of hippie culture in the West. Existentialism circulated in Kerala in such a way that it erased the difference between the Sartre and the Camus versions and tried to integrate the latter’s 'outsider' logic with the former. The hippie culture was also linked with this process, as existential angst was tied to the loss of a real self, articulated mostly in terms of an authentic local identity. This thought tried to represent the failure of the dreams of the modern nation, not necessarily by positing a challenge to it but by inhabiting its spaces with a ‘licentious’ lifestyle – tied to drug abuse and 'licentious' lifestyles. In these novels, the city now becomes a space which the modern youth has to negotiate by hook or by crook, as depicted in a number of protagonists of the novelist M Mukundan, especially Aravindan in Delhi (1969) and Ramesh Panikker in Haridwaril Manimuzhangumbol (When the bell tolls in Haridwar 1972), or by reworking what were seen as immoral activities or modern vices, into legitimate ones as seen in the novels of Mukundan, Vijayan, and Kakkanadan or in discussing the modern nation as the indigenous version of Kafka's castle in Anand's Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu (As Deserts are Formed 1989). (…)The radical politics of the time viewed existentialist writings as apolitical and at odds with class struggle.” (Radhakrishnan 2006: 176-7)
This long sequence at the house of Vasu, who seems to disapprove of the group’s activities and refuses to join them, is intriguing but not very perceptive. We see Satyajit turning the pages of an album with a collection of photos of important moments, disasters and personalities in world history that appeared in various magazines as he waits for Vasu to come home, while the palmist woman’s predictions continue on the soundtrack throughout. This is another sequence that generated some anxiety as to whether the sequence endorses Vasu’s disapproval of, and refusal to join, the group.
Rasheed, who was instrumental in organizing several Odessa activities in Fort Kochi, plays himself.
John has stayed in Fort Kochi for long and made friends with political activists and artists there, and has done a popular street play called Dog Play in one of the grounds there; the place later emerged as one of the key places where Odessa conducted several screenings. The singing voice on the sound track is that of P A Ibrahim aka Umbayee
Another account of a movement by people, which, according to the narrative, was defeated by a nexus between the capitalists, trade union leaders and the police.
The film ends with a shot of the film being watched by Purushan’s mother and his girlfriend, along with several others – making it look like a 16mm screenings organized by one of the film societies. This also suggests the disappearance of Purushan, leaving behind this report to his mother.