It was at the international Film Festival in Calcutta in 1982 that a comical experience occurred at a press conference. G. Aravindan, the famously reticent filmmaker, was addressing journalists. He spoke so softly that the microphone could barely pick up his words, when lo and behold a textured, gruff voice began to come out of his mouth and began to answer each question with pithy wit. Even Aravindan was taken aback.
The voice belonged to John Abraham, a fellow filmmaker also from Kerala. John, already three large drinks ahead of the rest of the world, had quietly stolen up on stage, placed himself strategically, behind Aravindan, and got into this mischievous ventriloquist’s act. In a trice Aravindan caught on and went along with John. The journalists were a bit confused but they too played along. The poetic filmmaker Aravindan, who was also the creator of a newspaper cartoon series on a boy called Ramu, which compared very favourably with Garry Trudeau’s Doonsbury, enjoyed himself thoroughly that afternoon along with his friend John Abraham.
A filmmaker of rare talent but with an awful thirst like his mentor Ritwik Ghatak, John Abraham died at the young age of 50 after a fall from a terrace in Kerala in 1987. He had recently completed Amma Ariyan (Letter to Mother) a deeply felt, unusually structured film based on the Rajan Murder Case. Rajan was a student who was picked by the Kerala police on the suspicion of being a Naxalite. He was murdered and then quietly cremated. A similar story was filmed by Shaji N. Karun called Piravi, which was generously awarded at film festivals, despite its sentimentality.
In his film, John Abraham did not make the body of the protagonist disappear as the Kerala police had in Rajan’s case. In Amma Ariyan, the “narrator” discovers the body of his acquaintance by accident just as the police is about to send it to the morgue (presumably) as that of an unidentified person. The body of the student is identified and then Abraham, in a master stroke, gives his story an epic dimension.
He creates a seemingly endless relay of students who go to give the profoundly tragic news of the boy’s death to his mother in another town. Abraham, in the process of conveying this piece of news, informs the viewer about the cultural and political history of Kerala in the colonial era and earlier. By placing his film in a larger historical context, the director acquaints us with the ruthless methods used by the rulers to suppress the ruled in order to maintain status quo.
Unlike John Abraham, who was a student of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, Aravindan was, to all purposes, self-taught. It is true that he had seen a great deal of World Cinema
Amma Ariyan, remains one of the most important Indian films ever made not only because of its content and form but also its true humanity. John Abraham had made three other films before - Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile (The Students Are Watching us, 1972), Agraharathil Kazuthai (A Donkey in a Brahmin’s village, 1977) and Cheriachante Krurakrithiyangal (The Crimes of Cheriyanchan, 1979). All three were interesting films but none matched the intensity of his last, Amma Ariyan.
A self-taught filmmaker
G. Aravindan was a quiet man with a subtle sense of humour. When he died suddenly in 1991 at 56, he had made some of the most significant films in Indian cinema in the post–Ray/Ghatak era. Unlike John Abraham who was a student of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, Aravindan, was, to all purposes, self-taught. It is true that he had seen a great deal of World Cinema, having been a part of the Film Society Movement in Kerala and had absorbed a whole lot.
He had been employed by the Rubber Board of Kerala and had travelled all over the state on a two-wheeler scooter, possibly a Lambretta, acquainting himself with the people and culture of his state. He always drew well, and had perhaps inherited his sense of humour from his father, the famous comedy writer MN Govindan Nair. He drew three cartoon series – Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum; Ramuvinte Sahasika Yathrakal and Guruji. These appeared in the premier paper, Mathrubhumi. Aravindan may have wanted to bring alive the characters he drew on the silver screen. The characters in his films were an echo of the ones who appeared in his strip cartoons. It is a blessing that he became a filmmaker.
His concerns were unusual even for non-mainstream filmmakers of his time in Kerala. Kanchan Sita (1972) shot rather well on ORWO Colour, a problematic emulsion, was an interpretation of the Sita myth from the Ramayana from the tribal point of view. Thampu (1978) literally meaning tent was about the travails of an impoverished small circus company. Kummatty and Esthappan had unusual themes treated befittingly. Kummatty (Bogey Man) was about a character blessed with certain ‘magical’ characteristics; Esthappan (Stephan) is also about a man believed to have mystical qualities. Aravindan filmed both stories poetically, investing them with a droll sense of humour.
Chidambaram is a poignant love-story between Sivakami, a married woman, whose husband, Muniyandi (Sreenivasan) is an employee on a huge, lush government-owned farm bordering Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and Shankaran (Bharat Gopi), the superintendent, and a friend of her husband’s, who loves her secretly. The film tethers on the brink of sentimentality to pull back at the right moment, when during the climax, Sivakami, (her husband has committed suicide) and her guilt-ridden, tormented suitor meet by chance at dawn at the famous Chidambaram Temple, years later. It is as poignant a moment and as worthy of any in a film by the Japanese master of tragedy, Kenji Mizoguchi.
Aravindan’s last film was Vasthuhara (1991). It was about the rehabilitation of refugees from East Bengal after the partition of India. It was a fitting end to an all too short career. A film of true feeling but not touched by sentimentality.
His greatest strength was his sense of detachment and undeniable compassion. He took risks with the grammar of cinema because he was not formally trained but create poetry on screen because he knew the pulse of cinema as well as he knew the pulse of life around him.
Today when cinema has taken an anarchic turn, shorn of its intellectual ballast and seduced by easily available digital technology, it is important to remember filmmakers like John Abraham and G. Aravindan and take inspiration from their work.