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Travelling circus


MASTERPIECE: A still from 'Amma Ariyan'

He would look at the scenic surroundings of Kerala and say, 'what a f****** place, there is no rough image anywhere. ' He hated greenery, for the issues he handled were stark. Twenty five years ago, when John Abraham began shooting his fourth and final work Amma Ariyan (A Report to Mother) in Kochi in 1986, he didn't even have a producer or distributor. All John had was the support of a group of committed youngsters, belonging to the post-Naxalite era.

In 1984, John had formed the Odessa Collective, a group intent on rewriting the rules of the film business by making it a collective effort. The idea was to liberate the medium through people's participation. To raise funds for Amma Ariyan, John's crew trekked through the villages of Kerala to collect funds from the public. Once the film was ready, the group began holding screenings in the same places from where they had raised money. Since the movie was produced with small contributions from farmers and dailywage earners in remote villages, it was well received in the rural belts of Kerala.

"Film is a product. Since it is a capital oriented industry, money will naturally influence the product. John was against the dominance of capital in films. The result was Odessa, a unique experiment. My contribution was Rs 100 because John asked only that much, " says Neelan, a close associate of John and a film critic. What makes the movie different, according to Neelan, was the way it was made. "It was a film produced by the common man for the common man. The whole process was different. When John was shooting in one location, the group would go to another location, collecting money, food and making arrangement for the crew's stay. Each and every attempt of John got strong support from the public. "

Trained at the FTII under veteran filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, John Abraham's first film Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (1971) was a commercial venture that he himself hated. Inspired by Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, his second movie, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977) made in Tamil, was a satiric attack on religious orthodoxy while Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal (1979) was a fictional study on the psychological scars of a man in a feudal Christian society.

When Odessa was formed, the idea was to register it as a cooperative society. But it didn't ' work out because registration was a problem. "We had coupons of five, ten and hundred denominations. But the collections were mostly fives and tens. The movie was screened more than 1, 000 times in Kerala, as well as in cities like Madras, Bangalore and Hyderabad, " says C Ammad, one of the members of the crew. "We used to go to different places taking three prints. One would start from Kochi to Trivandrum, and the other team would start from Calicut to Kochi and the third one from Calicut to Kasaragod. Finally, we would all reach at the same point, " he said.

Neelan, however, says Odessa never maintained accounts relating to the movie. "We never maintained anything and I can't tell you how much money was collected and spent for the movie. It was teamwork under John. There was no saving or surplus. Whenever John needed, he went to the villages and collected small amounts from people. As far as the crew was concerned, nobody accepted any remuneration for their work. "

The film is in the form of a letter written by Purushan, the main protagonist, to his mother. On his way, he finds a deadbody of a young man, who seems familiar but is unidentifiable. With the help of a couple of friends, the body is identified as Hari's. Now they want to inform Hari's mother about his death. On their way, more people join in and finally when they reach Hari's house, the small group that started the journey turns into a crowd of young men.

Amma Ariyan was a travelling circus, according to Beena Paul who edited the movie. "It was a fantastic movement from one place to another. The crew never wasted any money, and the places they went they dined with the villagers and stayed with them, " Says Beena.
Although the plot was fixed, the locations kept on changing while shooting. "There was improvisation every time when it came to locations. It was not fixed and the locations changed depending on John's creative inventions. He mixed with everyone - slum dwellers, farmers, drunkards. He was a maverick without any boundaries, " says Neelan.

Adoor Gopalakrishan, after spearheading Kerala's first film society, Chalachitra (1965), introduced New Wave Cinema to Malayalam through his debut work, Swayamvaram (1972). G Aravindan strengthened the movement with Uttarayanam in 1974. John was among the artistes who followed in their footsteps, but he was more radical than most. Amma Ariyan was a take on political unrest, failure of ideology and policies. Inspired by the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, John adopted a documentary style for this movie.
The period between the early-1980 s and early 1990s is considered the golden age of Malayalam cinema, paving the way for a middle-of-the-road cinema movement in the state. John's films were akin to a bold experiment on the fringes of the movement. But critics often describe the movie as merely John's swansong because the attempt by Odessa to take art to the masses faded soon after his death in 1987 in a freak accident. "It was the first of its kind in the world. But groupism and lack of vision killed the organization after the death of John. No one in Odessa had the will to lead the group after John, " says Civic Chandran, activist and critic based in Kerala.

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