John Abraham’s “Agaraharathil Kazhuthai” (1977)

பாழாம் வெளியும் பதறிப் போய்மெய் குலையச்-சலனம்
பயிலும் சக்திக் குலமும் வழிகள் கலைய-அங்கே
ஊழாம் பேய்தான்”ஓஹோ ஹோ”வென் றலைய;-வெறித்
துறுமித் திரிவாய்,செருவெங் கூத்தே புரிவாய்!
அன்னை!அன்னை!ஆடுங் கூத்தை
நாடச் செய்தாய் என்னை.

The wilderness of space shudders

And the astral bodies that are in revolution lose their orbit

The demon of doom wanders through space, howling and growling

Roaming around and dancing in frenzy

O Mother! The dance that you execute captures my heart

சத்திப் பேய்தான் தலையொடு தலைகள் முட்டிச்-சட்டச்
சடசட சட்டெனுடைபடு தாளங்கொட்டி-அங்கே
எத்திக் கினிலும் நின்விழி யனல் போய் எட்டித்-தானே
எரியுங் கோலங் கண்டே சாகும் காலம்.
அன்னை!அன்னை!ஆடுங் கூத்தை
நாடச் செய்தாய் என்னை.

Demons of Shakti make heads rattle in rhythm

Flames from her eyes spread in every direction

Seeing heaven burning, time itself is being immolated

O Mother! The dance that you execute captures my heart.

‘ஊழிக் கூத்து’, தெய்வப் பாடல்கள், சின்னசுவாமி சுப்பிரமணிய பாரதி, 1882–1921

A group of men chasing a foal in a street with sticks in their hands
A still from the film

The last act of John Abraham’s Agaraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Quarter) opens with a narrator reciting Subramani Bharathi’s ஊழிக் கூத்து (Dance of Doom). Not only is this scene crucial to the film but also it will be interesting to read Bharathi’s Dance of Doom vis-à-vis Goethe’s or Baudelaire’s Dance of Death, but this will be for some other day. I say this scene is crucial because this elevates the film to something higher than the overly simplistic interpretations of the film attacking Brahmin bigotry and superstition.

Made in 1977 by John Abraham (1937–1987), a Malayali film maker, who made only four films apart from a few documentaries, Agaraharathil Kazhuthai won the National Film Award for the Best Regional Film (Tamil) at the 25th National Film Awards. The award was given with the following citation: “For bold experimentation in a conservative milieu; for poetic intensity on a variety of levels; for creating a parable set against the orthodoxies and superstitions of a Brahmin village community; for its sympathy with the dumb world of animals and the equally dumb world of handicapped human beings; for the memorable impression it leaves on the minds of the viewers through the striking visual use of the verses of Subramanya Bharati, the first Tamil modernist.” The film was never screened in India because of pressure from various quarters, including the state government of that time, and was never written about by the Tamil Press. A planned screening on Doordarshan, the only television channel, in 1989 was also shelved due to opposition.

The mute adolescent girl who gives birth to the illegitimate child after being seduced by one of the village men
A Nietzsche quote from his “Twilight of the Idols”

Shot in and around Kundrathur, in Kancheepuram District, and also in Loyola College, Madras, the film tells the story of a professor of philosophy (played by B.M. Sreenivasan) who adopts an orphaned donkey foal, who he names Chinna, after its mother is chased and killed by a mob. The professor is subjected to ridicule by the neighbors and, not to mention being the butt of his students’ jokes, when things reach a point where the reverend principal of the college has a “pep” talk with the professor that his rearing of a donkey foal is demoralizing the students. Students those days were intelligent enough to play on Descartes’ “Cogito, Ergo Sum” to create jibes like “I’m an ass; therefore I think.” Philosophy students!

The rest of the story follows the foal growing into an adult Chinna in the Brahmin quarter in the professor’s native village where it is cared for by a mute adolescent girl. A series of “perceived” misfortunes because of the donkey, although it is not the donkey that actually causes them, convince the Brahmins that the donkey is a bad omen. When the temple priest finds a dead baby at the temple premises, it’s the last straw for the Brahmins to assemble the vannans and others from the village only to order them to kill Chinna. An important, but parallel, track to the story is that of the mute girl who gets seduced in the ruins of a temple and whose still-born baby is deposited by the girl’s grandmother before Him.

The film can be watched on YouTube these days with hard-coded subtitles provided by the, now seemingly irrelevant, National Film Development Corporation (NFDC); however, NFDC’s yet-to-be-fully-developed streaming service has a good collection of the best of regional movies produced in the country. John Abraham is credited with starting a film co-operative called the “Odessa Collective” (the term borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin), a venture where the public donates money for film production. This was even before the word “crowdsourcing” was invented. Alas, Odessa Collective’s first film, Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother; 1986, Malayalam) was John’s last when he died from an accidental fall.

It is now widely acknowledged that Agaraharathil Kazhuthai is one of the finest films of the Indian New Wave and that John ranks high along with the other avant-garde Indian filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul.