Interview Malayalam

The reality of director John Abraham is hard to afford: Writer Deedi Damodaran


John, an upcoming biopic by director Premchand, written by Deedi Damodaran, peeks into the legend of one of Indian cinema's most elusive names, director John Abraham.

Shriram Iyengar

'The raw material of cinema is life itself,' said the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray in his collection of essays, Our Films Their Films. One such unique life, that of the late director John Abraham, has provided the material for film critic-turned-filmmaker Premchand's upcoming biopic, John.

It is easy to mythologize the dead, particularly those who die young. But there are some whose myths fall well short of their realities. Director John Abraham is one such.

It is almost ironic that the name John Abraham now brings to mind a brawny 'star' of Hindi cinema, not a fiercely iconoclastic filmmaker who kept pushing the boundaries and ideas of cinema in India.

John Abraham addressing a gathering

In a career that spanned just 20 years, John Abraham directed four films — Vidyarthigale Ithile Ithile (1971), Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977), Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal (1979), and Amma Ariyan (1986). The political views, techniques, and method of filmmaking used in these four films have cemented his legacy in Indian cinema.

Through their biopic John, writer Deedi Damodaran and director Premchand seek to unravel the truth of a filmmaker who lived, died and worked like a revolutionary.

Speaking to Cinestaan.com in an exclusive interview, Deedi refers to the awe with which film buffs continue to revere John. "People would like to carry John as a myth. The reality of him is really hard to afford," she says of the filmmaker, his legacy, and the film itself.

Deedi, a founding member of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), came upon the idea of the script five years ago after a discussion with her husband, who is directing the film. After speaking with colleagues, friends, and coursemates of John from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, the filmmakers are currently applying finishing touches to the biopic. The release of the film's teaser on the 31st anniversary of John's passing (he died on 31 May 1987) was a pleasant coincidence, she says.

The teaser was released by Academy award-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty and captures the many versions of John that have petered into the collective consciousness. However, Deedi emphasizes that more than his films, John's greatest contribution to the art was, perhaps, his contribution to the idea of 'crowdfunding'.

Amma Ariyan (1986), John's last film, was entirely funded by the people. The director and his troupe of the Odessa Collective (an initiative he established in 1984) travelled across villages performing skits and showing reels of films to collect money which would eventually contribute to the making of his film.

Deedi says this contribution of the filmmaker has gone mostly unnoticed amidst his technical skills. "Perhaps it has not yet registered, that this was his greatest contribution as a filmmaker," she says.

John the film is currently in its last production schedule and is expected to be released soon. Excerpts from an interview with writer Deedi Damodaran: 

When and why did you choose to make the film?

Five years ago, we started working on the script based on what my husband had written about John's death for a Malayalam newspaper [Mathrubhumi]. We wanted to make a film, talk about this filmmaker who is mythologized [in Malayalam cinema].

This was planned on a much larger scale. Slowly, we understood that it was difficult to coordinate all these operations. In the meantime, my daughter was doing a documentary on the relevance on John, over how the newer generation remembers him. So we thought we could start the film with a group of her friends who were also interested in his story. That’s how it began.

How would you define John Abraham to an audience that does not know him?

My husband and I are film buffs. We would watch all films in theatres, and would often watch his films. We were also curious about how the parallel cinema movement would pan out, its future. During that time, we often discussed that there was nobody else like John. Even in the parallel cinema movement, we found that they [filmmakers] had compromised at one point or the other. The compromise is built on account of the need for capital.

The freedom will stop at one point, and that is the point where you have to spend money. Capital, as we all know, has interests of its own.

That’s the right place where one should praise John Abraham. He tried to puncture and prove a different idea through his last film. He was the person who introduced the concept of crowdfunding. The way he attacked and protested against the capital involved in making films, we felt that he had to be re-registered and reintroduced to people who are interested in the process.

Through the journey, we also understood that people talk a lot about the 'artist' John. Everybody tried to ape John, in that the life he led was so anarchic, but all this without knowing anything about his films. They did not know that he had written short stories. They just knew that he was a drunkard and lived life on his terms. 

A still of director John Abraham (Source: www.sahapedia.org)

For us, the greatest statement or placard that we would like to raise would be the way he confronted this issue of capital. Of all the people we spoke to, they were not aware, or perhaps it had not registered, that this was his greatest contribution as a filmmaker. 

Today, we have a lot of examples where people have started talking about crowdfunding. So we also thought we would do the film through crowdsourcing. If people had a feeling that they might want to participate in the project, they could offer their services. 

As an iconoclast, what would he have made of a film being made on him?

This is based on what my husband wrote about his death in Mathrubhumi. He had written about John's last three days in Calicut. The script is based on those three days. The film is also about people thinking about John. It takes a look at what John would make of people talking about him after 30 years. That is the fictional part of it. 

John Abraham receiving the Kerala State Film award for Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal (1979) from then chief minister EK Nayanar

What was the research that went into separating the myth of John Abraham from the reality?

I don’t think after watching the film anyone will say we knew John better than the others. The film is just another version of John. This is how we think about him because John is just another reality. People would like to carry him as a myth because the reality of him is hard to afford.

People would dream of being him. And people who have been part of this film have travelled with him, close associates have all been part of this film. Once you talk to them, you will understand that they have all imbibed his thoughts. They walk the talk (sic) like John. 

The film is trying to explore the kind of journey he went through. His last film [Amma Ariyan, 1986] itself was a journey. So we would say there are several versions of him, with this film being another version.

How did you capture his political thought to put forward to an audience that is more used to cinema as a form of massy entertainment?

His first film was not very political. It was his second and third films [Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977) and Cheriyachante Kroorakrithyangal (1979)] that had a strong political undercurrent. But in the third and the last one, Amma Ariyan, it is very apparent. There are places where you find the characters reading out extracts from political speeches. He had to put it that way. 

The article which my husband had written was about John writing scripts for three more films [which remained unfinished] in his scrapbook. And he made Hari Narayanan [John's writer] write all that he thought about. They are in fragments, and all the fragments you will find in his collection. My husband has the manuscript with him. 

Kayoor was the film John was planning to make when he died. Our film talks about the project, and how he couldn’t finish it, as well as about these three fragments. We have characters who come in from his other films as well, but we have focused mainly on the last three days of his life. In Kayoor, we have taken the liberty of explaining the film from our terms, in the form of a discussion where other people associated with the film, like Madhu Master [scriptwriter] try to understand the film. 

In fact, when the film was abruptly called off, John had said, “I don’t need a place for Kayoor. I don’t need the help of any of you. I just need the sky, the landscape and a camera. I don’t need a revolution.”

When is your film likely to be released?

Actually, we are busy with the last schedule. We realized after the first few edits that people watching needed a few more clues about the events in the film. 

There were a lot of instances where we knew the background details, but people watching would need to be clued in. We believe that people who really need to know John might research the details and learn more about him. But we will have to change some elements to make it more clear.