Memoirs: Once Upon a Time in South India

A dream come true in God's own country

With Mr. Jugu Abraham outside his house
India is a land of diversity and it is this diversity that makes our country one of a kind. India’s rich diversity is beautifully summed up by the famous Hindi adage “Kos kos par badle paani, char kos par vani” which says that such is the multifariousness of our country that the taste of water changes after one mile while the language of people changes after four. Going by the above maxim it’s only apt to say that there is an enormous cultural divide between the people of North India and South India. While the north is known for its resplendent, somewhat showy lifestyle the south is distinctly marked by its rather simplistic, almost rustic way of living.
For someone like me who was born and brought up in the north the chance to visit South India doesn’t come very often. And when the opportunity does present itself it makes a lot of sense to make the most of it. I got one such opportunity back in the month of July.  And, fortunately, I did decide to take the leap of faith, and it turned out to be a very prudent move. It was only supposed to be a three-week long stay: two weeks in Trivandrum followed by a week in Chennai. But, by the time I was done with it I had vividly experienced a surreal boat cruise through the magical backwaters of Poovar, a rambunctious trip to Kanyakumari, a hitchhiking journey to Mahabalipuram, and a picnic-like extravaganza in Pondicherry.

The real highlight of my stay down south, for me, was my meeting with my idol, Mr. Jugu Abraham, at his Trivandrum-based residence, "Tragopan," named after an endangered species of bird.  I had been dying to meet him for quite some time and the meeting was indeed a dream come true for me. A film critic par excellence, Mr. Abraham is a living encyclopedia of cinema. And, probably, the only thing that supersedes his knowledge of cinema is his humility. He has worked with UN-sponsored international organizations for over 20 years, specializing in resource mobilization for international non-profit agricultural research. From 1978 to 1985, he was a film critic with the Hindustan Times group of publications, New Delhi, India.

Mr. Abraham considers himself to be fortunate to have met and interviewed some of the stalwarts of cinema, dance and drama from diverse parts of the world. His education spans physics, literature, management, and mass communication. Mr. Abraham has been a great source of inspiration to me. His erudite film reviews, published on his renowned blog “Movies that make you think,” have not only introduced me to some of the greatest works of cinema but have also taught me a great deal about film appreciation. My correspondence with Mr. Abraham, all these years, has helped me develop a better understanding of cinema. 

The afternoon that I spent with Mr. Abraham proved to be a truly enlightening experience for me. Not only did he share his thoughts on cinema but also gave me several useful tips about movie reviewing. He also told me how his love for cinema started burgeoning from a very young age; how he grew fond of movies like Bandini, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Pyaasa, and Boot Polish at that age; how his headmaster, a Jesuit priest, at a boarding school in Darjeeling spotted his raw talent, after reading a film review, written by him, published in the school magazine, and handed him a book of film reviews by none other than Pauline Kael.

Mr. Abraham talked about stalwarts of cinema like Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Sergio Leone, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. He also talked about his contemporary favorites like Terrence Malick, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and Paolo Sorrentino. He was kind enough to introduce me to M. T. Vasudevan Nair's Nirmalayam, a monumental work in Malayalam cinema, and also to the likes of German auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. He talked about his travel experiences and showed me an amazing painting, hung on the wall, which he had picked up from the roadside in Mexico. He also shared with me his desire to write a book on film reviewing. The day came to a perfect end as I got to feast on a delectable meal specially prepared by Mrs. Abraham.

During the course of this adventurous sojourn I made many new friends, most of whom I am still in touch with. The journey that had started on a dull note in Trivandrum soon developed a rich texture with the arrival of a friend from Dehradun. This friend, a truly vivacious soul, changed everything for me from the word go. We soon became partners in crime in our endeavor to explore the south: if he were the grand architect then I would, most definitely, have been his avid adherent. I have no doubts that it was his bonhomie which transformed the trip into an unforgettable experience. I also owe him for a few pictures that he was kind enough to capture for me with his newly purchased camera. 

But, as we reached Chennai he seemed somewhat spent and so I was forced to step in his shoes. Since I had been to Chennai before, it was a cinch to be my friend’s guide. In a few days I made us cover the whole city. During my previous visit, back in the summer of 2010, it had taken me more than three months to do the same. Chennai is one place which never fails to surprise with its endless enigmas: its cosmopolitan culture, its crowded beaches, its formidable public transport system, its mouthwatering cuisines, etc. And, for this very reason, Chennai remains very close to my heart. In fact, it wouldn’t be farfetched to call it my second home. And now that I am back in my hometown, I just can't wait to take yet another leap of faith and finish off what's left to be explored down south. 

— Murtaza Ali

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  1. Priyanka PurkayasthaOctober 2, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Super ... though a personal journey and not really a travelogue which i originally thought the post would be. But a very nice work indeed . Keep up the good work.

  2. I am glad you liked it... thanks a lot for leaving your valuable comments!!!

  3. Without a doubt he's an encyclopaedia of cinema for the past few years i have been following his reviews and blogs very carefully and they are nothing sort of an exceptional film writing i have seen in a long time in india i think of him more as a film scholar rather than as a critic, i have been fortunate enough of meeting another great film scholar like chidananda dasgupta few years back in calcutta. Its great to see both of you in one frame.


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