31 May 1987: John Abraham, Indian director and screenwriter, died

“Dear John, who asked you to die?”

~ Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Indian director, talks about his friend and contemporary John Abraham in a memoir, Cinema, Literature and Life.

Tragic death at a young age can be extremely painful to loved ones. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s simple line calling out to his friend, who died at the age of 49, in his memoir shows the pain that he still feels for his friend John, after his death on 31 May 1987. An Indian director whose avante garde movies raised heads, John Abraham is considered as one of the top five Malayalam directors. He is remembered as a fun-loving “nomad”, whose movies showed the exceptional genius that he was. Gopalakrishnan believed he was “a prophet who belonged to an extraordinary lofty plane.”

Early Years

John Abraham was born on 11 August 1937, in Changanassery, Kerala. His early years were spent with his grandfather in Kottayam, where he also completed his intermediate studies. He pursued a college degree in Thiruvalla, and thereafter took up a job as a teacher in a private college. Later he also worked in an insurance company in Kumbhakonam in Tamil Nadu.

John’s life took a marked turn when he enrolled into the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), in Pune. He received training from stalwarts in the movie business like Ritwik Ghatak, and his talent was soon discovered in scriptwriting and direction. In fact, John achieved gold medals in both subjects. It is believed that Ghatak considered John to have “the brightest future” among other students in his class.

His Film Career

John Abraham’s film career begun small, as an assistant director for a Hindi film named Uski Roti in 1969. He assisted one of his professors from FTII, Mani Kaul, for this film. The work gave him ample exposure to land projects that were filmed in his home state, Kerala. His first self-directed project came in 1972, when he made Vidhyaarthikale Ithile Ithile (Students, this Way). John tasted fame for the first time in 1977 when he made a film in Tamil, named Agraharthil Kazuthai (A Donkey in a Brahmin Ghetto). This movie is regarded by his fans as a classic. It won him a National Award as well. In his short career span of about 15 years, he wrote and directed four films.

Film experts consider John’s films to have a deep satirical element. According to an article in The Sunday Indian magazine, his award winning film Agraharthil Kazuthai was a “hard-hitting satire on Brahaminical bigotry and superstition.” The message of the movie was so stark that the Government of Kerala lobbied to ban it from being shown on Doordarshan television. John also used a unique type of narration, like in his Malayalam movie Cheriachante Krurakrithyangal or Cruelties of Cheriyachan (1979), he makes Cheriachan's mother’s soul narrate her tale after death from her burial site. His last movie was Amma Ariyan (To Mother) in 1986. In this movie, he showcases a complex story associated with the death of a Naxal youth.

One of the most significant contributions of John Abraham was The Odessa Collective. This was a ‘cinema movement’ that involved the public for raising funds for producing movies. The movement allowed John to make the kind of movies he wanted to make than be subjected to pressure from commercial investors and producers. He believed cinema to be a form that “should be set free from literature.”

Beyond Films

Apart from films, John Abraham had a love for writing. His poem that pays tribute to his mentor, Ritwik Ghatak, when he died in 1976, is no less than a literary piece. In addition, he wrote short stories that were published as an anthology, named John Abrahaminte Kathakal. One of the readers, and evidently a fan, remarked, “The pure imaginative genius [of John Abraham] is clearly displayed in all of the stories.”

His Lifestyle and subsequent Death

According to Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham had an “unbridled and uninhibited lifestyle,” where the end was rather “theatrical”. He loved to travel in a nomadic style, without carrying anything, even a change of clothes, and without conforming to the regular holiday activities. His friends recall that he used to walk down random streets at odd hours and experience more than a normal person would during a holiday. John also had a charming personality that attracted people even if they could not converse in the same language. Regardless, John, like many personalities, had misgivings as well. The worst one was that he was an alcoholic.

John’s alcoholism is believed to have been responsible for the mishap that eventually ended his life. On the night of 30 May 1987, under the influence of alcohol, John accidentally fell off from the roof top. He was rushed to the Calicut Government Medical College and Hospital by his friends. It is believed that he was subjected to medical negligence, which Dr. B Ekbal, which was admitted by a surgeon from the hospital. In a post on the social networking site, he wrote that, “timely surgery would have saved John, but doctors failed to diagnose internal bleeding.” He also added that, if the doctors would have known that he was “John Abraham, the director” his treatment would have been faster. This created a controversy among the public who were outraged at the lack of proper medical treatment for John.

John Abraham’s untimely and tragic death created a depression in the world of Malayalam parallel cinema. He is still remembered for his movies and his personality. His work was memorialized by the Federation of Film Societies of India, Kerala, by instituting the John Abraham Puraskaram.

Also on this day:

1928 – Pankaj Roy, Indian cricketer, was born

2002 – Subhash Gupte, Indian cricketer, died

2013 – Abir Goswami, Indian actor, died


Cinema of Malayalam website

The article Legend of John in The Sunday Indian


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