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John Was More Naked Than Adam: Saga of an Anarchist Filmmaker

Hell is not God’s idea, I believe. I also believe that John Abraham and God had an erratic relationship with each other. But then, why the hell didn’t John invest in full, the coins that God had entrusted him so dearly?

I first met John when I was a fresh graduate and a culture-vulture apprentice at Kochi. One day I saw John walking near the Ernakulam boat jetty with some hand-written posters in his hands. A few days earlier there was a news item in a daily saying that John had abandoned cinema and got married to street theatre instead.

A picture accompanying the news showed John beating tin drums in the gleeful company of some children in a coastal village. John had written a play called ‘Naykkali’ (Dog’s play) and was inviting interested villagers to join him as actors and   make the play happen. The announcement came on a placard that hung from his neck.

Villagers joined John in several roles and, together, they could finally stage the play. After several performances and after making all the mobile souls in that area participate in his play either as a viewer or as a theatre activist, John called it a day. He left the place without taking a single actor with him to the neighbouring villages.

Tin drums … amused children … and artist apprentices. He repeated the same feat again and again and injected theatre frenzy into clusters of villages. The poster he was carrying when I met him was an announcement for such a performance.

“You – John Abraham?”

I asked the Christ-like figure wearing an untidy full-sleeved shirt and a dirty Jeans.

“Do you have two rupees to spare?” John asked the mundu-clad wonder struck youth in reply.

“I need to buy some cheap gum for pasting these posters,” John added.

I did not have two rupees in small change. John took ten rupees from me, bought the gum made out of maida from a nearby tea-shop, and returned the balance without counting.

“What’s your name, you said?” asked John.

“No such formality ever happened,” I answered.

“Tell me your name. I need to give you the credit title in an appropriate fashion – Gum, by so and so.” Both of us laughed heartily.

John started pasting the posters on the nearby wall of Ernakulam general hospital. Meanwhile, he extended to me an invitation to join him for a full-day theatre workshop at a village called Chellanam.

The theatre workshop was as disorganised as John. A drunken apostle surrounded by undisciplined disciples at a celebration of anarchy. The daily chores of the villagers seemed to be the basic agenda on which revolved their candid conversations until Neelan came in. Neelan was bringing out a little magazine –‘Drisyakala’– from Thrissur on the visual arts and was John’s very close friend.

John called a village boy by name, interrupting a discussion on Stanislavsky and started telling us about the escapades of this boy and his craze for cycling. Then the postman enters. Instantly a story emerges about the postman who told John that the day he carries a love letter in his daily bunch of letters he begins to feel it under his arm-pit. His arm-pit starts jumping like a thumping heart!

John was a fantastic story-teller. At a later stage in his career John wrote very different, humorous and engaging short stories. One of his short stories entitled, “How many Mathews are there in Kottayam?” is a personal favourite of mine till today.

John was never afraid of his artistes or technicians, unlike the other masters of Malayalam cinema today. He always bound them with a deluge of ideas in an air of informal interactions.

During the shooting of his film ‘The Cruel Acts of Cheriachan’, he made the legendary Malayalam actor Adoor Bhasi climb a coconut tree. The protagonist of his film had this acute fear of the Police. He had escaped to the top of a coconut tree for no sin of his. Adoor Bhasi was helped by others to reach the top, and then the film-maker did a vanishing trick into a nearby toddy shop.

Many drunkards and many stories later, John suddenly remembered about Adoor Bhasi waiting atop the coconut tree. Later, John explained that the actor, who was a veteran famous for his humorous roles, actually had the fear of his life written on his face by the time John re-surfaced and switched on the camera. John’s film was a departure for Adoor Bhasi as an actor.

As John was full of stories, so are people who knew John. They are full of stories about John.

John had stepped out of India only once – to attend the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy. His travelogue, ‘A Pesaro Journey’, is the best piece of writing I have read in Malayalam by a traveller. He throws away the special wardrobes stitched and fitted for film-makers with a calculated halo around them. John was more naked than Adam.  He opted to be a mud-guard rather than a cosy VIP inside. And as a mud-guard he knew the gutters closely. Thus, in a way Ritwik Ghatak and John Abraham were destined to be a Teacher-Student duo.

Once in Italy, John went missing. The festival director had to do a combing operation to flush out John, who by then had joined a musical street band. He was an instant success as a singer-performer with his interesting mix of Christian and pagan elements.

John introduced his film Donkey in a Brahmin Village and then went and sat among the audience. The calming effect of an air-conditioned room after several days of drinking and dancing lulled him for a while. The anaesthetics of the new-born dancing gypsy could not stand the aesthetics of an art-film-maker from Kerala. So, he threw his own shoes at his own Donkey doing the tricks on a Brahmin screen in faraway Italy!

In several ways, John matched the ascetic sprit of the great Malayalam writer Vaikkom Mohammad Basheer. Basheer once showed me a fox in the backyard of his house, which was hit by a Sahitya Academi award plaque. The fox seemed inordinately proud of being hit by Basheer himself with his new bronze medal, said Basheer.

John lived several lives in his half-life.  But his life as a film-maker did not match the artistic talent he was bubbling with. God himself had smuggled several brilliant ideas into John’s films in spite of all the sins of this apostle of anarchy. Film-making was a brutally demanding calling for this man of many ideas. He got impatient with the ordeals of film-making.

John was innocent of the capital-incentive dynamics of the film world. His great Odessa experiment of raising money through small donations from common people and showing them films free and freely was his way of solving this puzzle. He assassinated the producer. John got rid of this historical murder in Indian cinema; as Hell is not God’s idea. But his soul-mate, poet A. Ayyappan, survives almost as a medical wonder for a quarter century by now as an object which floats in water and sinks in alcohol.

John ate too little and drank too much. While he was staying in the suburban slums of Chennai- then Madras – during the pre-shooting period of Donkey in a Brahmin Village, he was envying the healthy Tamilian drunkards, who ate too much and also drank too much. Owner’s pride became neighbour’s envy at the early morning open-forum sessions beside the railway tracks.

John would be in pain as he tried to clear his bowels in this public performance of a community ritual. Only a John Abraham could express it the way he did it to our consumerist society by exclaiming at a fellow squatter in the morning hours at the railway tracks – “Oh! My God!  What a mouth-watering pile of shit!”

Hell is not God’s idea. But John definitely is. Basheer threw his Award Plaque on to a fox; John threw his shoes on to his donkey and we Malayalees were hard hit by John. I know, who threw John on to us. I also try to imagine how Ritwik Ghatak or John Abraham would have reacted today to an increasingly pompous and shitty world around me. Sorry, around us.

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