JOHN ABRAHAM AND THE ODESSA COLLECTIVE

Crowdfunding as the name suggests is the practice of funding a project by raising money from a large number of people. Today, this is done mainly through internet-mediated registries. The reach of internet has simplified this process today. But it is interesting to know that in 1986, a group of film enthusiasts, under the leadership of John Abraham, used this method of alternative finance to change the history of film production and distribution. The group collected money by travelling from village to village in Kerala and with monetary contributions from the general public; they made cinema an empowering and liberating medium and the public its stakeholders. Their first production was Amma Ariyan which was screened throughout the state of Kerala on a non-commercial basis. This initiative was called The Odessa Collective and its leader was John Abraham, an alcoholic, famous for his revolutionary or rather nomadic way of life. Amma Ariyan was Odessa Collective’s first film and John Abraham’s last because after that he died falling from the rooftop of a building. Yes, this genius filmmaker died after falling from the rooftop of a building in Kozhikode. He made just four films. This article is an attempt to pay tribute to John Abraham and The Odessa Collective.

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John Abraham was a student of Ritwik Ghatak in FTII, Pune. He graduated with gold medals in Screen Writing and Direction and started a career in films assisting Mani Kaul for Uski Roti (1969). He rebelled all the established ways and led a nomadic existence. The Malayalam media called him Ottayan meaning the Lone Tusker. Romanticism was his way and he truly considered and used Cinema as an agent of change. In his masterpiece, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977, Tamil), he attacked the religious orthodoxy of Brahmins through a satirical tale of a stray donkey wandering in a village. In Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal (1979, Malayalam), he displayed his knowledge of Marxist philosophies and attacked the feudal system and the police atrocities.

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His fourth and last film was made under the Odessa Collective initiative. He by-passed the tyranny of market forces and initiated the Odessa Collective in 1984 with a street drama in Fort Kochi named Nayakali. John with his friends travelled through villages and collected money from the public to fund Amma Ariyan. They also collected money by screening Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Even after John’s death, his initiative was kept alive by his friend and filmmaker Odessa Sathyan. Amma Ariyan is in the form of a letter written by the protagonist Purushan to his mother. In this letter, he describes a journey which he started alone but was joined by various people in the course. Purushan before leaving his home for Delhi promises her mother to write to her wherever he is. During his journey, he finds an unidentifiable dead body which he later identifies as his friend Hari’s who committed suicide. He then decides to travel to travel to Hari’s home and to inform his mother of his death. In the course of his journey, he is joined by a number of like-minded people and it becomes a crowd before they reach Hari’s home. Through this journey, John has portrayed the condition of the youth of that time. Through the use of metaphors and symbols, he has questioned the system and life of citizens within this system. Every member of this group before starting the journey to Hari’s village informs his mother about what he is up to. Mother in this scenario is the nation, the government and the members of this group are the citizens. The dead body is the youth. This film cannot find more relevance other than the present times. The relationship between youth and nation and the system is currently hot topic of discussion among the intelligentsia.

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John Abraham became a myth in his very short lifespan. The question is why. Was it because of his revolutionary, nomadic style of living or his left ideology or his commitment to the medium he chose to express himself or because of the subject of his films? Why is he an iconic figure? Leading Columnist and a friend of John, V. K. Cherian, recalls in a book what Adoor Gopalakrishnan said to him after John’s death-“All of us were jealous of him, as none of us had a following like him among the youngsters of Kerala or for that matter among the serious film viewing community.”

But time changes and with this change we have forgotten this genius, John Abraham. We have forgotten his films and we have forgotten the Odessa Collective. V. K. Cherian has written this somewhere- “Now we are in a world without John and the Soviet Union and all that they stood for. And when I did a Google search for John Abraham, a good able bodied muscular Bollywood actor emerged on the Internet. The world, it seems has been reduced to one of the famous jokes of John Abraham. Only few of us and his friends, some film enthusiasts remember our John Abraham, frail-bodied, with a dirty beard, but with a sparkling naughty eyes, waiting to crack a joke on any situation, ready to recite the entire paragraph from “ Hundred years of Solitude”, remember each shots and situations from a films of maestros like Ritwik, DeSilva, Fellini,Solanos etc, even after he is dead drunk. Cry with tears in his eyes talking about Ritwik Ghatak and his days in Pune, Film and TV Institute. Only recently, I surprised my South African friends reciting John’s famous song” free free Mandela”. 

John Abraham Fell down from the terrace of a building and died on 31st May 1987.

Here is something that John Abraham wrote for RItwik Ghatak as a tribute. Read this.

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Ritwik Ghatak,

in partition, not physically of willingness-the country departed

Out of his outer consciousness – cosmic consciousness

none of his mistakes,

Reactions – natural reactions – reflections

Ritwik Ghatak,

refugee, unborn, unwanted, unbearable

penetrative towards the Victorian hangover

of the Tagorian corruption of thinking

Life was more important to him

than the words in praise of god,

the god of Victorian Tagorian thinking.

Hence, he was rejected from the Bengalian thinking

Ritwik Ghatak – the name doesn’t suit

the hierarchic thinking of the Raynian Zamidarian thinking

Perhaps, the long echo of the forgotten factors

that becomes reminiscence of

the ‘death of the salesman’ or otherwise

the long columns and no more Chhabi Biswas,

Cardiac arrest is common.

The death of Ghatak is uncommon.

Nay, Ritwik Ghatak

I remember,

a tall man

his hands moving around my shoulders,

catching me with the feeling of nearness,

rather than imperialism-

the man who stands before mequestioning my manliness

loosing his hands to shake my handsin appreciation of manliness

recognizing each other-

abiding in each other

kicking on my an’s and telling me

“Get up, awake shoot”

I remember, not with sentiments

with awakening proud, Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Daa,

let me call you Ritwik Daa,

I know that you are no more.

But I am, alive for you

Believe me.

When the seventh seal is opened

I will use my camera as my gun

and I am sure the echo of the sound

will reverberate in your bones,

and feed back to me for my inspiration.

Thank you Ritwik Daa,

I am thanking you

not with impotency and insipidity

Ritwik Daa,

I remember you,

when the words fails to criticize you,

Ritwik Daa,

eternally you are

in my brain

in my spirit and

in my Holy Ghost

Amen.

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