The revolutionary film maker John Abraham (From FB)

Louis Proyect

The revolutionary film maker John Abraham (1937–1987), who started the Odessa Collective in Kochi in 1984 and whose second feature film (made in Tamil) ‘Donkey in a Brahmin Village’ (Agraharathil Kazhuthai, 1977) was banned in Tamilnad. From Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s Enyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, one gathers that he studied economics at a college near Kottayam, was educated by his grandfather who gave him his first camera, worked as an insurance salesman in Bellary, and went to the FTII to study under Ghatak. He raised money ‘by travelling from village to village beating a drum and asking for contributions to a genuine “people’s cinema”’. He was fond of drinking and is said to have died by falling from a rooftop.
A Brahmin professor of philosophy Narayana Swamy (played by M.B. Sreenivasan) is lampooned for adopting a young donkey whose mother has just been done to death by a mob. The rector of the Christian college where he teaches tells him the whole college has been plastered with posters making fun of him and that this is ‘bad for our discipline’. ‘This is demoralizing our institution’. The young professor then agrees to take the donkey to his village. In the village N. hands the donkey over to Uma, a deaf mute, to look after. Throughout the film he and Uma are the only characters who express any real emotion other than the ridicule, anger, etc. that the Brahmins constantly express. Thus N. tells his dad, ‘One evening when I came home, I found this donkey on my doorstep. I was told that an angry mob had killed its mother. I felt perturbed. I didn’t know what I should do. Do you know what crossed my mind? I felt that a living thing had come to me for love and affection. I hadn’t the heart to drive it out’. He returns to the village some months later to find the donkey has become an object of mounting frustration and resentment. Uma gets pregnant but loses the baby. When a priest discover its discarded corpse, he mobilizes the other priests, shouting ‘It’s a curse to find a baby’s corpse in the temple!’. When they summon Uma’s mother, she blames the donkey. The priests decide the donkey ‘has polluted the temple’. ‘Even when driven out of here, this donkey manages to return. There is only one solution—to kill it’, says the headman. As the villagers grab hold of the young donkey and drag it away, beating it as they do so, the voice-over says, ‘Tell me, where is Hari the God? Tell me, growled Hiranya. The good son replied, He is in the pillar and in every particle of dust…God is the sum total of each and every thing’. They go back to tell the priests they’ve killed the donkey. But some days later they see a donkey wandering on the hill. Miracles start happening. The priests now change their story. The headman says, ‘At a glance I saw a donkey lit with divinity on the child’s face…Everyone must contribute to the temple and help us build it. We’ll then be worthy of Lord Shiva’s blessings’. N. overhears this conversation among the Brahmins. He goes looking for Uma and finds her mourning. He tries to console her. He goes home and reads. Beside him on the bed is a book with Che’s picture on the cover. The voice-over says, ‘Reciting verses from Poet Bharati’s Dance of Doom’, after which a long sequence follows where Bharati’s poem is recited against rapidly alternating shots of N. and Uma and the refrain ‘O Mother, the dance that you execute captures my heart’. At the very end the killers are shown dancing frantically around the donkey’s skull. The verses with which the director started the film return at the end. ‘Fire is the god of heroism. Fire is the flaming sun. Fire is the essence of light. May it burn…Virtue, wisdom, life, penance, sacrifice, enmity, anger, oppression—we pay homage to all these qualities of fire…Fire, which is life’s comrade, we greet you…Like you, O Fire, may our minds sparkle.’
The apocalyptic dance poem that John Abraham recites close to the end of the film is taken, as he tells his viewers, from Oozhi-k-Koottu or ‘Dance of Dissolution’ by Subrahmanya Bharati. Bharati was the most revolutionary of the early 20th century Tamil writers. Although known also by his pen-name ‘Shelley-dasan’ from his deep admiration for Shelley, his political writings were banned by the British as ‘sedition’. He died in poverty in 1921 at the age of 39 , after writing seven hundred pages of poetry that were destined to have a profound impact on Tamil culture. Bharati himself had welcomed the Russian Revolution, writing ‘O people of the world, behold this new wonder!...It was like a forest reduced to firewood by a whirlwind’.
To describe Agraharathil Kazhuthai as a ‘delightful satire about Brahmin bigotry and superstition through a helpless donkey’ misses the point of the film. The film is not about caste per se but about caste as emblematic of wider cultural attitudes. Abraham’s Brahmins are simply emblems of a more widespread lack of humanity that defines India’s society and culture. Thus the intellectual /protagonist who adopts the donkey is himself a Brahmin, which immediately breaks with any caste essentialism the film might otherwise suggest. The killers of the young donkey are not Brahmins either, but probably Vellalas. The passenger on the bus who objects to having a donkey being transported is your average Joe. Seen in this light, Abraham’s film is almost a Christian parable about the brutality that is bound to characterize societies that build their superiority on the oppression of others. And read in a more political way, it advocates an alliance between revolutionary intellectuals (or let’s say the most progressive sections of the middle class more widely) and women. It is no accident that a woman plays the part of the deaf mute. And no accident either that she and Narayana Swamy are the only characters shown as truly capable of love. To my mind the film is a parable about the future that was waiting obscurely to explode in the years and decades after Abraham fell to his death.
A restored and complete version of the film can be seen here:

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