Remembering John - Adoor Gopalakrishnan
It's been a long while since our beloved John Abraham left all of us. Any attempts to confine his exceptional genius, who left us in unusual circumstance in adjectives or clichés are bound to fail. John never had friends or foes in the extremes. If anyone claims otherwise, it would have to be treated with suspicion. If someone describes him as a prophet who belonged to an extraordinarily lofty plane, I would tend to agree.
Though older, he was three years junior to me at Pune Film Institute which he joined after resigning his job in L.I.C at Kumbhakonam, Tamil Nadu. Typically, first year students would be ignored as novices by their seniors in any educational institution. However, probably for his captivating personality, John attracted our attention and affection. There would always be a bunch of mates around the articulate John. Drama, Painting, Music, literature - be it anything, he had an uncommon grasp and enthusiasm. Sporting a playful smile he was a natural hitting punch line in any debate.
This was a period when all the students at the Institute were struck by the magical spell of Ritwik Ghatak, who was the vice-principal and Professor of Direction. I remember John's arrival at the institute with some fascination for the period. Naturally they got along quite well. I've heard people say Ghatak expected John to have the brightest future of all his students.
If anyone asks for the most important aspect of John's cinema, I would have to mention at the outset, their engrossing black humor. The protagonist riding a motorcycle by pedaling on the starter (Students, this way, 1972), milkman attempting to fool the cow to yield milk by propping up a calf with straws (Donkey in the Brahmin ghetto, 1977), towards the end in the movie, Cruelties of Cheriyachan (1979) the scene is titled "Ascent" with a long shot of the actor perched on top of a coconut tree, and in the same movie you might as well remember Cheriachan's mother narrate her story in monologue in the burial ground right after her death - like soul inside a body all these stood for a universal vision embodied in unique narrative techniques. Artists who cherished the dead and the living, the exciting and the lifeless with the same intensity of indulgence and affection are not to be found anywhere except John. The scene in the Brahmin Ghetto where the lid of a coffin is opened repeatedly revealing the dead body in a mortuary and the still born child in "To Mother" (1986) clearly underline the above.
His unbridled and uninhibited lifestyle and the art that sucked its blood and sweat were merged irretrievably and inevitably by destiny for sure. His life was like a puzzle in a surreal scenario where a theatrical enactment of tragedy rumored, forewarned, accepted and inexorably took place in the end. We realize that with a jolt now. How can we ever say that the scenes from his own life when he lay unrecognized in the Calicut medical college mortuary like a vagabond for days were not adapted by John as he did in "To Mother"? The intellect that distilled the puzzles of life into art and then life itself and even death left a lot of unknowns in the dark.
John was a compulsive traveler, without any belongings, mostly without even another pair of clothing. John can be anywhere-in conscious or unconscious state; inebriate or sober; in groups or alone. We were together when the only time John traveled abroad, to Italy for Pessaro film festival.
The new pair of shoes that *Odessa organizers bought for him did not fit his feet. Nevertheless he was wearing it in the Bombay airport. It was only a few minutes for the flight to depart before we realized John had not done emigration clearance and he was disheartened to be retreating and finally higher authorities intervened to walk alongside to help him fly are not quite the scenes to forget. When everyone took refuge in woolen clothes from the bone chilling cold in Pessaro, John wore cotton clothing on top of another refusing the sweater I offered. After the shows and dinner when everyone else withdrew back into the warmth of their bedrooms, this man was wide awake and walked along the city to conjure the rhythm, sound and material from its nightlife. While our stay in Pessaro was for seven days, John had spent almost fourteen days. Within a few days
We were convinced that John was the most popular, famous and liked participant among us in this Italian city. He did not need to speak Italian to achieve this.
Italy is known for the numerous film festivals conducted every year. Every city conducts one more festivals. As far I know John was invited for at least a dozen of them. The youthful and enthusiastic organizers wanted John to attend them even if his films were not available. The picture of the radiant face of a middle aged bartender who tucked his hand upon his chest and held his breath and deep admiration for John who was stepping on to the stage to answer cineastes’ questions after Brahmin's Ghetto was screened in Pessaro was incredible. I can never forget or erase the magical moment.
We were given a car to visit Rome on the last day of the festival. I had obtained permission to keep the car for the whole day so that I could show the city to John. I took this responsibility upon myself since I had been there three times already. I kept the following vignette in memory. Inside St.Peter's Basilica in Vatican and inhaling the enchanting, resplendent and holy majesty that condensed over centuries, John confessed with pride and a mischievous tinkle in his eyes:
"Standing here if a Christian bloke felt a bit cocky, you can't really blame him".
The journey's triumph and the serene hallow of fulfillment and satisfaction passed on his smile to me.
I understood later that Pessaro was a major reinforcement for John. He afterwards completed "To Mother". He spoke of each step in production with a lot of excitement. How many of them including Rossellini’s son Jill, John promised to come back with the new film? Everyone who cared for him including myself truly believed he had just entered a new phase of artistic endeavor. Unfortunately for Malayalam films, the thing called fate that some believe and others don’t did not let it happen.
Once after a long interval, John visited my home. He asked my daughter:
"Who asked you to grow up?"
I would like to ask him in return:
"Dear John, who asked you to die?"
* * *
* Adoor Gopalakrsihnan: One of the major malayalam movie directors. This is an excerpt from his book Cinema, Literature and Life written in Malayalam. I did the translation of a small segment from the book.
* John Abraham: John was one of the major avant-garde directors in Malayalam cinema. With only four films to his credit he had a major impact on the medium. He had an enigmatic persona who defied all the conventional norms of social codes. Even his death had a stamp of his world vision and seemed to invoke a black humor on society's conducts upon celebrity death. He fell off a multi-storey building and was kept in the mortuary for days before being identified. You can find more about John here.
* Odessa: Odessa was an avant-garde movement who organized resources for meaningful cinema and spread film societies across the country.