Amma Ariyan/Message to my Mother (John Abraham, India, 1986)
This film was made by a group called the Odessa Collective (more on this here: john-odessa.blogspot.co.uk). It is the first film made by the group, and the last film from director John Abraham, who died in 1987.
The protagonist, Purashan, decides to go to Delhi to conduct some research. On his way, however, he encounters the body of an unidentified man who has committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree. Purashan decides he can no longer go to Delhi, and that instead he must inform the dead mans mother of her son’s death. After identifying the body as a musician named Hari, Purashan embarks on a mission, gathering others along the way, each with their own subjective, and sometimes conflicting, memories of Hari. They traverse a country riddled with political turmoil, becoming politicised in the process. At the end of the film the collective reaches Hari’s mother and delivers the bad news.
During the opening credits of Amma Ariyan a narrator voices the dialectical opposition between most films “which portray reality by exploiting its economic cultural and political aspects” and film as a medium, through which “we must help each other by creating new standards of social awareness”. The film expresses this dialectical opposition as one that can be fleshed out through a Brechtian aesthetic that allows the overlapping of documentary and fiction form, as well as the ragged disjuncture of sound and image, and the mixture of song and poetry.
The film becomes a hybrid of these many different aesthetics, radicalising itself as it develops. This is reflected in Purahsan’s journey, which can be bookmarked at various stages where the protagonist becomes increasingly radicalised. The first sequence, for example, shows Purashan entering the frame from the right hand side, staring into a mirror on wall to the left. He calls to his mother to bring him a letter, which, since it is written in English, he is not sure she can read. “I learnt English long before you” she replies, and goes on to slowly read the letter in English while Purahsan fixes himself in front of the mirror.
What this sequence displays is a colonial duality of Indian and English identity. While Purashan is doubled in the shot by his mirror image, he and his mother speak to each other in both languages. The fact that she learnt English long before him is a testament to colonial history, a theme that arises many times in the film in documentary format, carrying out an important Third Cinema function of educating the audience (more on Third cinema here: thirdcinema.html). When Purahsan moves out of the shot, the audience see only his mirror image while his mother reads in English. This solidifies the duality, positing a crisis of identity by materialising the mindset of the colonised. Purashan is no longer there, all that remains is an image interpreted in English.
This is the first stage in what I see as a process of radicalisation in which Purashan goes from being one who is merely colonised to becoming a hybrid. The difference between the two has been discussed ever since Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which there are thee main characters: Prospero, the coloniser of the Caribbean, and his two sons, Ariel and Caliban (Roberto Fernandez Ratamar makes the best analysis in this book: Caliban_And_Other_Essays.html?id=VNGq_0RacucC&redir_esc=y). The former aspires toward the image of his colonial master, while the latter uses the customs imposed on him by colonialism to destroy it. In basic terms, Ariel submits to colonialism, coming to admire and even depend on the coloniser, while denying his own native traditions. Conversely, Caliban accepts his status as one who is colonised, but uses the amalgamation of cultures to become a stronger revolutionary and overthrow the coloniser.
In Amma Ariyan, the protagonist starts off as Ariel, and gradually becomes Caliban. This process emanates from the narrative and becomes confluent with the structure of the film, creating a dialectic between form and content that begins with the single individual as he interacts and shapes the filmic world. In one of the early sequences, Purahsan is shown walking away from his house. The camera moves backwards, away from him as he walks towards it. There is a series of sharp cuts from this position, to behind Purashan, and again to a position behind those approaching him in the street. What is shown is a number of different perspectives of the situation. What it signifies is an important step in the process of hybridisation: the ability to see from the perspective of an Other.
This is important. It signals the intersubjectivity required for sharing knowledge as well as organising. Furthermore, film is, to some degree, the imposition of a perspective, and in this way it has the power to make cultural restrictions and foster interpretations on the world in much the same way as the machinery of Colonialism (indeed, Capitalism in general) does to its subjects. The film combats this immediately by showing a multitude of perspectives, thus widening the scope for the intersubjective flow of knowledge.
This intersubjectivity also has relevance to the theme of the mother, which is prominent in the film. The film begins and ends with interaction with a mother (first Purashan’s then Hari’s) and is punctuated throughout with men relaying the news of Hari’s death to their mothers. The symbol of the mother is certainly very relevant, primarily in relation to her creating that which the child becomes, both before and after birth. However, if we are to move towards a revolutionary perspective, from Ariel to Caliban, it would be foolish to overlook the role not only of the mother in shaping the world of the child (which could easily be seen as allegorical for shaping India as a nation) but also that of the collective, and the shaping of the world through the intersubjective flow of information.
Here it is useful to engage with two philosophical ideas. First, the idea that man as a species is not only ontogenetic (the biological imparting of similar genes from one generation to the next) but also phylogenetic (the cultural ‘handing-down’ of traditions that allow man to skillfully cope with the world and the gradual enhancement of such skills through this process). The second has to do with a collective ‘stream of consciousness’. The relevance of the latter will become clear through explanation of the former.
As the collective around Purashan grows it solidifies. As they go on their journey they are met with situations and imparted with stories of struggle by the people they meet. One of the first places they go to is a medical university, where students are protesting against the “commercialisation of education” and the privatization of healthcare. In another sequence the film switches to a documentary format to conduct an interview with a one legged man, who is telling a story about a miners struggle. Again, this is an example of the Third Cinema imperative to educate. More complex, however, is the films reflection of the participation of the audience. The first shot of the sequence shows what is apparently a simple piece to camera interview, a straight shot of the man sitting on a rock. The film then cuts to a shot that more closely resembles something like a fictional narrative, in which the group are sat around the old man listening to his story. The connection between the characters in the film and the audience is established by the blurring of the documentary and fiction formats.
This connection is solidified by the temporal confusion created in the film. In a torture sequence, we are unsure as to whether we are watching a flashback or the filmic present. Furthermore, the stories expounded within the group are occasionally contradictory and factually conflicting. These mechanisms emphasise a world in which the knowledge of the single individual is fallible, yet it is possible to gain some form of unity through multifarious contributions. It is through these contributions that the phylogenetic nature of tradition becomes temporal, and a collective consciousness (through which people not only interpret, but change the world) is born.
In other words, it is not the memories of any one individual that forms the consciousness of the working class, but the collective memory, which is fostered in the amalgamation of individuals into collectives that skillfully cope with the world before phylogenetically handing down their experiences to the next generation. Phylogenetic, collective memory builds a history of the world, which is both ongoing and circular in that it keeps moving forward temporally, skillfully coping with the environment while relaying these experiences back to the collective ‘stream of consciousness’ as a “Message to my Mother”. In this way every character represents a mother in that everyone makes their own contributions to this consciousness and thus plays a part in changing and shaping the world.
Mother, then, represents both the individual and the stream of collective consciousness that is continuously formed through intersubjectivity, and to which the individual contributes with fallible memories. This theme is proven in the production process of the film as undertaken by a “peoples film co-op”. The collective in the film are the best example of how it is both politicised and advocates politicisation. This orientation towards revolution is the contribution made to ‘mother’ (the stream of collective consciousness) by the co-op.
The variety of individual contributions is also reflected in the fact that the film uses a multitude of media. The definitive sequence, which most openly encourages revolution, is constituted by found images from films and magazines. This is similar to the methods employed by Cuban filmmaker, Santiago Alvarez (more on Alvarez here: alvarez_ciclon). There are some extremely hard-hitting images of starving people and mass graves filled with the bodies of children. We also see footage of Charlie Chaplin’s dictator, death squads, and the body of Che Guevara. All these images are placed in a sequence in order to show the audience a given social and political situation, while the narration arms them with the knowledge to change that situation. “Capitalists:” the film tells us “sell rice on the black market. We must snatch it back and distribute it”. The film then tells stories of how people have achieved this in the past, invoking a conception of history that subverts the mainstream.
In one of the final sequences, the collective are shown walking along the street to find the house of Hari’s mother. The shot changes are the same as the first time we see Purashan walking along the street counterpointed by the perspectives of Others, except this time Purashan is one of a collective, who have solidified through their skillful coping with the world and now have their own collective consciousness. In other words, the collective is now a revolutionary group moving in one direction. The history as told by the collective is placed in dialectical opposition with the history as told by the state when the group reaches Hari’s mother at the same time as a policeman, who comes bearing the same news. In this way the group subtly takes its place as the antithesis to the state.
The themes I have outlined here are amalgamated in the final shot of the film. The camera cuts away from the filmic world into a reality where an audience can be seen watching it. The film itself becomes an individual that makes a contribution to ‘mother’, thus changing the world by giving people the tools with which to do so. In doing so, it becomes part of a phylogenetic process that enhances the ability of the audience to skillfully cope with a world in which revolution is the only option.
The film is available here: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H35vEqp4bYk]