|Directed by||John Abraham|
|Edited by||Beena Paul|
Amma Ariyan (Malayalam: അമ്മ അറിയാന്, translation: What i want my mother to know) is a 1986 Malayalam film directed by avant-garde filmmaker John Abraham. The story revolves around the incidents following the death of a young Naxalite, upon whose death his friends travel to the village where his mother lives to inform her of the death of her only son.
Amma Ariyan is considered to be a complex movie. Since its release in 1986, critics have read several layers of meaning in its story. The film was the only South Indian film to feature in British Film Institute's Top 10 Indian Films list.
Preparing to leave for Delhi, Purushan bids his mother goodbye, promising to write to her regularly. In the thinly populated forest area of Wayanad in the north-east of Kerala, the jeep in which he is travelling is stopped by the Police, who take possession of it to carry a dead body found hanging on the wayside tree. The dead man's face looks familiar to Purushan. He becomes restless and is seized with a pathological obsession to find out the identity of the deceased. Against the wishes of his girl friend, he abandons his trip to Delhi and sets out to seek his friends who may have some clue. Purushan meets journalist friends, doctors, and finally a veteran comrade, fondly addressed as Balettan who identifies the dead as the fellow musician who accompanied Satyajit, the guitarist. Satyajit confirms the deceased is his friend Hari, the tabla player. Together they decide to inform Hari's mother who stays in Cochin. They set out on a long eventful journey from the northern highlands of Wayanad to the Southern port city of Cochin.
As they move from Kozhikode to, Beypore, Kodungalloor, Thrissur, Kottapuram, Vypin, and finally to Fort Kochi, the group swells as they meet many mothers and their sons and relatives who have known Hari; some had known him as a tabla player, some as Tony, the jazz drummer and others as a silent political activist, a victim of police brutality, and a loner. And for others he was a drug addict and one who used to drown his sorrow and pain in his music. Through their recollections, Hari's rather diffused identity unfolds. His classmates remember Hari as an introvert, weak and indecisive. His worker comrades identify him as a staunch revolutionary with a strong resistance and will power. But then what went wrong?
The colonial past of the places, what they took from us and what they left behind as well as the peoples protests and uprisings, the region witnesses and their heroes and victims are integrated into the narrative, by way of information as well as critiquing.
While reporting to his mother about Hari and his friends and their mothers on his southbound journey, John also reconstructs the history of the land through a series of class struggles, student protests, and workers union clashes that took place in the region where Purushan traversed. Starting with the medical students agitation against commercialization of medical education, to a short dialogue with Karuppuswamy, the unfortunate victim who had lost both his legs in a colliery workers struggle for better wages and human dignity, in Kottapuram, to Vypin island where several mazdoors (labourers) either died or lost their eyesight in the man-made hooch tragedy, to the Citizens group's forcible taking over of rice and sugar hoarded by unscrupulous black marketer traders and distributing to ordinary people at fair prices and giving back the money collected to the traders, to the manipulated fight between workers of two feuding unions in a Mattanchery street in Fort Kochi, where four fishermen had died, and also some targeted working class leaders in a fake Police encounter, an abortive factory workers strike extending solidarity to the retrenched women workers in Fort Kochi, are some of the long list of peoples protests and struggles reported with deep concern and feeling by Purushan in a long letter to his Mother.
As Purushan and his group wait for Hari's mother to come out of the Baptism ceremony from the church, they analyse their own past, note the emerging debate focusing on the romantic evasions and tragic failures of the extremist movement. When Hari s mother finally turns up and faces the youth congregation, she asks "Suicide wasn't it?" The film ends with Purushan's mother watching Hari's mother wiping her tear.
- Kunhulakshmi Amma as Purushan's mother
- Harinarayan as Hari
- Joy Mathew as Purushan
- Maji Venkitesh as Paru
- Nilambur Balan
The incidents that led to the production of Amma Ariyan are striking. A group of young friends of John Abraham who wanted to make it into a "people's movie", constituted the Odessa Collective, aiming at production and exhibition of good cinema with active participation of the general public, without the intervention of market forces.
They raised money for the film by traveling from village to village and house to house, beating drums, singing and putting up skits and short plays at street corners and asking for contributions for the 'people's cinema'. They collected the fund needed for the production of a movie. It was Odessa's first film and John's last Amma Ariyan re-wrote all the conventions of filmmaking. 
The film is made in a documentary style. As a part of the technique of intertwining fact and fiction, the film maker shot many actual leftist political strikes that took place in Kerala during that time.
- The Great Mother not one but many
As in all primitive cultures which have the power to overcome contradictions of faith, in Kerala too radicalism has gone hand in hand with the mother cult. The mother goddess is worshipped in its varied forms – as Devi, Bhagavathi, Parvathi, and Kali all alternate forms of Durga, the consort of Lord Shiva and the embodiment of energy and destruction. The traditional matrilineal kinship, sensitively shown in the scene between the mother and the son's betrothed drying the wet cloth in the sun, in a way points to the strong influence Purushan ( also means The Man ) has in defining his personal radicalism. The male (Purushan) seeking an umbilical solace in the female (Nature) through the expression of his inner self thereby becomes the crux of John's narrative. "Suicide is something that John tries to come to grips with as the little boy asks: "Father, what's suicide?" And Purushan clumsily tries to explain but fails ¦. Two mothers in the film - one Hindu and the other Muslim - ask themselves and us, "Why these youngsters are committing suicides? ", As we look at their faces, we realize John is not telling the story of one mother and one son but of several mothers and several sons and also the tragedy of a time in Kerala's socio-political and cultural history. As with Ghatak, for John also the mother image is the most vibrant cohesive force in Nature which binds people of different sensitivity together. His protagonist s journey begins and ends with the same belief.
- Alone in the crowd
As the journey proceeds and Purushan takes stock of his life and goes into reflections of his umbilical links with his mother and the beloved as they always appear together as a single entity in his mind, he finds himself more and more alienated from the group and their ideology, (if they have one). The alienation becomes complete towards the fag end of the film with an arresting image of him lying alone in bed of flowers under a tree and the camera captures his face in a way that reminds us of the dead face of Hari in the mortuary His total identification with Hari takes him to come to terms with himself and both the mothers ¦.
- The Journey
The whole film is designed in the form of a "journey" – the journey of life Putrushan sets out for the journey with the intention of going North (Delhi), but after his encounter with "death" he reverses the direction and travels South from the forests of Vayanad in North Kerala to Fort Kochi, the port city, traversing practically the whole of Malabar, a land which had a long tradition of political activity and people's movements in Kerala. Even though John came from further down, Kottayam, he seemed to have a thorough grasp of the political and cultural history of this region. The film is an eloquent testimony to this.
- History of class struggles
While reporting to his mother about Hari and his friends and their mothers on his southbound journey, John also reconstructs the history of the land through a series of class struggles, student protests, and workers union clashes that took place in the region where Purushan traversed. Starting with the medical students' agitation against commercialization of medical education (a topical issue to this day), to a short dialogue with Karuppuswamy, the unfortunate victim who had lost both his legs in a colliery workers struggle for better wages and human dignity, in Kottapuram, to Vypin island where several mazdoors (labourers) either died or lost their eyesight in the man made hooch tragedy, to the citizens group's forcible taking over of rice and sugar hoarded by unscrupulous black marketer traders and distributing to ordinary people at fair prices and giving back the money colleted to the traders, to the manipulated fight between workers of two feuding unions in a Mattanchery street in Fort Kochi. Where four fishermen had died, and also some targeted working class leaders in a fake Police encounter, an abortive factory workers strike extending solidarity to the retrenched women workers in Fort Kochi ¦ are some of the long list of peoples protests and struggles reported with deep concern and feeling by Purushan in a long letter to his Mother ¦
- Interpreting metaphors
The metaphors used by John in Amma Ariyan are powerful, but often obscure. The dead body, which Purushan witnessed by chance and later, brings together like-minded people to form a crowd requires to be interpreted. The other and perhaps the most important metaphor that needs interpretation is 'Mother'. Even though throughout the course of the film, each individual member joins the crowd after informing their respective mothers, two mothers stand out in the film. The film unfurls in the form of a letter to Purushan's mother who sees off her son by urging him to write letter to her, wherever he may be. The other mother, the mother of Hari who commits suicide is the destination of the crowd. While one among them is anxious to know about her son's journey through the torrid times, the other mother foresees her son's suicide, while almost all the mothers are seen worried about the youth of that time, succumbing into suicide. John's film starts with a mother's wish to know about her son and ends where another mother's dreams of her son burn down. The crowd that is formed for the mission of informing Hari's mother about his death too requires interpretation.
- Apolitical intellectuals
Otto Rene Castillo's famous words are quoted at a point during the course of the film:
- "One day the apolitical intellectuals of my country will be interrogated by the simplest of our people. They will be asked what they did when their nation died out slowly, like a sweet fire small and alone."
These words deliberately quoted in the film by John may be the essence of this film, which make this film relevant even today. The formation of a class of apolitical intelligentsia in a democratic system is the biggest threat to the root of this system. Politics for democracy is synonymous to oxygen for life. When the philosophy of an intellectual turns out to be apolitical, his action results in the very destruction of a democratic system. By the end of the film, just after the crowd informs Hari's mother about his death, the official messengers within the system, the police reach there and convey the same piece of information to the mother. The mother, the nation expects this tragic news at any moment about her rebellious child. But is that all the information that the mother expects from these messengers? Hari, the rebellious citizen, who walked out of the system, possibly to recast the system, might have committed suicide, accepting failure in his mission, or might have died like a brave soldier or his death, might even be a murder. The reason for this death, which the crowd failed to probe and find out, is politics in a system. The crowd that never bothered about this vital issue is not a movement capable to act as the backbone of a system but just a crowd of apolitical individuals. This crowd doesn't succeed in finding out the reasons for the decay of the system, but finally starts decaying themselves. It's not just such a mob that should emerge out of this system, but politically conscious movements. These movements are not destined to bear the burden of dead bodies of 'martyrs', who commits suicide. Their mission should be to probe into the reasons behind these suicides.
In the film, the mothers who react to the news of death of Hari are shown worried and sad about the youth moving towards self-destruction. The Nation too grieves the death of its citizen. In other words citizens themselves make the entity called the Nation, it's his duty to perpetuate the Nation. Hari's death may be a tiny isolated flame, but it has the potential to grow into an inferno, which would set ablaze the Nation itself. This alarming truth is seen repeatedly in History books. Hence the Nation desires to know about the reasons behind the decay of the system. But the apolitical intelligentsia, who never bothers to probe these reasons, one day, would definitely be questioned by the poorest of the poor. This quotation used by John Abraham could be a prophecy about that day, the day, which this crowd of apolitical intelligentsia would be questioned.
A piece of art becomes noble when its importance extends from present to the future, when the artist turns out to be a prophet. John too was a prophet. He prophesied the pathetic spectacle of today, where apolitical crowds labelled 'political parties' join together in a procession carrying burdens of dead bodies termed 'martyrs', forgetting reasons and ideologies, believing that the petty knowledge they procured during this journey towards perdition as ultimate truths, never bothering about the real politics of this system, continuing this journey with mere the information of the death of a citizen to the Nation. It would also be interesting to find out the fate of the crowd after accomplishing their mission, which John left for our judgement. We understand that this crowd never dispersed after accomplishing their mission. These crowds found out more and more dead bodies like that of Hari's and are still continuing their procession carrying these burdens. It could even be concluded that a movement's birth itself coincides with the identification of a dead body. For this movement to gain momentum a crowd is formed. A dead body not only means that the individual is dead but also acts as a pointer towards number of truths, the ideas, dreams, aspirations and struggle the individual had undergone during his lifetime, which these crowds never try to understand.
The way John has captured the individual reactions to the tragedy shows his keen sense of observation of life and human beings. Purushan goes to Neelambur Balan (Balettan) who is in the midst of a drinking session with his fellow comrades. On hearing the tragic news one of the comrades comment: "It s true . It s true ¦.. While another says: "How sad ¦.How sad ¦. " John exposes the hypocritical reaction of pseudo comrades to personal tragedies. Vasu, another disillusioned extremist at a later point remarks "You may go. There is no point in my coming " Hari s father contemptuously abuses Purushan and his fellow comrades as self-styled revolutionary dogs and calling them " scoundrels " but breaks down as he raises his hand to slap Purushan who conveys news of his son s suicide . And finally the real mother reacts "Suicide wasn't it? I could never understand him, his dreams and desires ¦, as she takes out her glass, wipes her tearful face, and puts it back. The action gets repeated on the improvised film screen being watched by Purushan s mother who gets up and walks away with the crowd as the end of Amma Ariyan and the film within the film coincide reinforcing John s last mission : " that it s not merely making of such films but showing them to the common people, countering the well entrenched exhibition monopoly, that really matters ¦. "Balettan enjoying the Tamil song sung by the jeep driver " Chilar Chirippar Chilar azhuthar Gnan chirichhukonden azhutindren ¦.Gnan azhukonde chirikindren ¦ ( Some people laugh, some cry but I keep on laughing while crying ¦. and crying while laughing ¦.,) and Balettann instigating him to sing one of his Tamil favourites ¦. " Irandavanaiyum appidi irandavanaiyum chumandavanum irandittar… Athe iruppavarum enni patha marandittar ¦ (He who bore the dead on his backs … he also died ¦The alive forgot to count the number that died ¦.) The baby doll dangling behind the windscreen as the jeep steers through the highways and bridges comes as a disturbing reminder to the viewer of the suicidal hanging which we went through earlier. Whomsoever Purushan meets to join the journey – all friends and well wishers of Hari including his critics - are all engaged in some activity or the other whether , directing a play " Wee Wee Mandela ¦ , repairing a fishing boat, conducting a Judo training class on the sea beach, or consoling a mentally deranged sister who suspects every knock at the door is that of the Police or playing the drums in a jazz music session . The scene which I can never forget is the our where the woman palmist sitting at the backside door asking for " Dakshina ( sacred gift ) extending the ritualistic chess board and starts reading the palm of the housewife,narrating the fortunes of her radicalism son and the measures to be taken to ward off the evil in his life .. A youth from Purushan s group turns up in the front enquiring about their comrade Vasu. As the youth waits for Vasu and skips through a book of photographs, the palmist s marathon narration goes on uninterrupted behind By juxtaposing the soothsayer s words of wisdom and prophesy ( ? ) Which son Vasu debunks as waste of time with the some of the unforgettable photographs of the last century, of human suffering and intolerance. John makes his point about life and belief quite eloquent. A totally disillusioned Vasu rejects the idea of accompanying the group as it s not going to serve any purpose… The master scene one can never forget is cameraman Venu s marathon walk to and fro with his handheld camera through the long winding queues of men women and children waiting for food grains snatched from the illegal hoarders and black marketers being distributed by people s protesters. Mrinal Sen who had not seen the film earlier was taken aback when I showed him the clip in the Archive Steinbeck table and immediately selected it for inclusion in his edition of Indian Cinema for the BFI's Centenary of Cinema Project . When the driver asks Balettan, how Marxism and drinking get along, he explains: "Marxism is my philosophy but the practical aspects of it do not appeal to me and drinking is my." He doesn't complete the sentence but goes on to add later: "Marxism has often had a laugh at me." Though a hard core leftist himself John does not fight shy of criticising trade union leaders who sided with the capitalist management, Police and the bureaucracy in crushing down genuine workers protests. He says while narrating the Fort Cochin strike for reinstatement of retrenched women employees one among the long list of abortive attempts in Kerala s politics.
- "Top 10 Indian Films". British Film Institute. Retrieved 16 January 2012.
- Rajan Kurai Krishnan 2011. 'Cinema and the Idea of the Collective', Journal of Moving Image 10 (Alternative Cinemas in India).
- Ameet Parameswaran 2015. "Contemporaneity and the Collective: The Reportage in Amma Ariyan", in Satheese Chandra Bose and Shiju Sam Varughese (eds.). Kerala Modernity: Ideas, Spaces and Practices in Transition. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, pp. 109-125.
- Amma Ariyan at the Internet Movie Database
- Amma Ariyan - Cinema Of Malayalam
- Amma Ariyan, a study - Manuvilsan, Rajmohan
- John Abraham - Profile in cinemaofmalayalam.net
- John Abraham - Weblokam profile
- A tribute to Ritwik Ghatak by John