Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978) (aka Donkey In The Elite Colony)
“I felt a living thing had come to me for love and affection. I hadn’t the heart to drive it out.”
John Abraham’s Donkey in the Elite Colony (1978) begins before its imagery does, with the narrator passionately reciting a fiery poem by Subramanya Bharathi, in praise of fire, during the credits. The first visual of the film follows up the verbal worship of fire in the poem with an extended shot of a sunrise. The tone is set for a leftist kind of film with revolutionary overtones. The seventies was a notorious decade in Indian cinema – both parallel and mainstream – as the permissiveness of American cinema had started showing its influence. And fortunately, it was also the period when cinema was taken most seriously and for the good. Malayalam film director John Abraham’s second film, and his only film made in Tamil, is a controversial film from the era and continues to be rated as one of the most important non-mainstream movies from the country.
Professor of philosophy, Narayanaswamy (M. B. Sreenivasan) returns home one day to find a little donkey at his doorstep. He comes to know upon enquiry that its mother has been killed by a mindless mob and decides to provide refuge to the animal. But staunch opposition from college officials and his students forces him to transport Chinna (that’s what he has named his pet) to his native village, only to trigger a chain of apocalyptic events. The neighbourhood is an agraharam, the settlement of Brahmins (considered one of the higher social classes in ancient India), where the mere notion of a donkey (an icon of the working class) replacing the sacred cow as a domestic animal breeds hostility. Narayanaswamy is single and has a brother who is married but childless. Chinna is taken care of by the mute Uma (Swathi), who is as devoid of the notions of class and caste as Chinna is and whose fate clearly mirrors the donkey’s.
Director John Abraham and scriptwriter Venkat Swaminathan evidently draw inspiration from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, even overtly referenced early in this film), where too the protagonist’s fate was tied up with the donkey’s. I say fate because none of the central characters (the women and the animals) seem to be able to affect the direction of their lives. Both Chinna and Uma are mute creatures who end up being victims of insecurities and questionable intentions of certain individuals who take refuge under the cover of their social standing. But Abraham is far from being a Jansenist (that Bresson is often claimed to be). He is more interested in doing away with the oppressive forces than in contemplating about the harrowing state of affairs as his opening and closing sequences testify. Towards the end of the film, when the professor finally searches out the whereabouts of Uma, he finds her sitting listless among the ruins of a temple, amidst abandoned idols, subtly raising an intriguing question – Has God forsaken his subjects or is it the other way round?
It is so good to see an Indian film, after a long time, which respects the cinematic form and not just its scenario. Venkat Swaminathan’s script would have been just a hard hitting short story if not for what John Abraham does with it. Although Abraham’s style does become showy at places and the film feels like an uneven student film, the director’s conviction that form underscores and enhances content overwhelms. He draws inspiration from Eisenstein (montage is used regularly in the film), the neo-realists (location shoot and use of non-professionals) and, more extensively, Bresson (lot of detail is conveyed through off screen speech while the camera lingers on the characters’ actions). It is enough to witness just the opening few minutes of the film to see the formalist urge of the film. Following the prolonged shot of the sunrise, using simple cross cutting between the professor and the little donkey, Abraham starts presaging the intrusive and iconoclastic nature of both of them, which will be elaborated upon later in the film.
But most interesting is the central piece of the film, where Abraham achieves a unique effect through repetition and montage. It is a sequence where Narayanaswamy’s father is recounting the villager’s complaints about the donkey. Each scene of complaint begins with a villager shouting out his gripe, after which, Abraham cuts to what actually happened. It is revealed to us that in none of the cases, is the donkey guilty of what the villagers are accusing it for. In contrast to the verbose ranting of the villagers, these flashbacks are completely devoid of words, with only a soundtrack playing throughout each one of them, as if stressing the inherent dubiousness in human words. At the end of each scene, we see Chinna and Uma walking past the father-son pair almost in the same fashion every time. This is followed by a section that shows a working class man taking advantage of Uma’s condition, much like the villagers making use of the donkey’s inability to object. The whole sequence of events repeats three or four times and constantly calls attention to itself, making it a bit of an overkill by today’s standards.
Donkey in the Elite Colony has been called an attack on the Brahmin hegemony in rural Tamil Nadu. But Abraham’s film is much more than a simple tirade against a particular caste or class. It, in fact, talks against any system that tries to imitate itself for a reason it can’t understand and imposes upon itself, laws and practices that are either irrelevant to the present or plainly irrational (In one scene, Narayanaswamy tries drinking coffee without sipping – a practice considered a characteristic of the Brahmin household – in front of his mother, only to fail). Donkey in the Elite Colony presents one such social system which blindly attempts to sustain its oppressive structures like class, caste and family and goes any distance to weed out anomalies that may harm the setup. The class divide is as much perpetuated by the submissiveness of the working class as it is by the domination of the elite. The fact that Narayanaswamy is single and his brother’s family is childless seems to be a big taboo. Status quo is restored only when his brother’s wife bears a child. Even the college where Narayanswamy works insists that he get rid of his pet since it is “demoralizing” for the institution.
The final act of Donkey in the Elite Colony begins on an ambiguous note, which, in a way, feels like a weak link. We are first shown Brahmins who are repenting for their actions, haunted by the implications of their sins, and then the workers rising to revolt. Is Abraham suggesting that a change has to come from within, rather than through an organized movement (This is a plausible explanation, for Narayanaswamy himself is one of the Brahmins)? Or is he of the opinion that a revolution is the only way for progress? The climactic act, at times seeming indecisive, is brought to a final resolution with the help of another Subramanya Bharathi poem – Dance of Death. The penultimate image in the film is that of burning houses, rendering closure to the film’s first sequence (the opening poem is recited in the soundtrack once more) and providing us with a clear solution rather than an introspective question. Abraham’s leftist tendency overwhelms, taking the film with it into an agitprop mode reminiscent of the Soviet cinema of the twenties. The film closes with a shot of the setting sun – a rather unusual metaphor for a propagandist showdown, for the revolution has just begun.