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Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill): And thereby hangs a humane tale...
INDIAN CINEMA is largely mindless fantasy. Ridden with cliches and riding on plagiarism into a sunset of scriptless senselessness. Films fool fans, who are willing to be cheated only because they have hardly any choice.
But, when a good work emerges, rarely though, it is so poorly publicised, distributed and exhibited that most people open to watching cinema with a purpose do not even know that something like this is available.
Call it the mafia of monopolistic big banners or egocentric stars whose sole motive is to blow the trumpet of narcissism, most Indian movies are not just eminently dismissible, but are often an insult to very basic human intelligence.
Given this scenario, directors such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan appear like the ray of light from a lighthouse on a stormy, turbulent night. Adoor's cinema may not always be mesmerising — his bare frames and plain looking characters who flit across them can be so banal that we may as well be watching a scene across our own little street — but his subjects are invariably provocative. His themes are laced with arsenic, so to say, that are ready to take on the most sacred of cows.
Adoor must be one of the few auteurs in India to have tackled topics like feudalism and Communism, ripped them apart, and continue living in the heartland of these `isms', Kerala.
His latest film, "Nizhalkkuthu" (Shadow Kill) in Malayalam takes on the bull of capital punishment by its horns. So what is new? The subject may not be, but the twist that Adoor gives to his tale is extraordinary.
He portrays the pain and guilt of a professional hangman in the erstwhile Princely State of Travancore, whose rulers were never sure that the noose was a fair form of retribution. They often revoked and invoked the death sentence, and in what can be seen as mean cowardice, the `thampuran' (ruler) invariably sent his order of pardon, but so timed it that it arrived at the jail minutes after the execution had been carried out. The `thampuran' was thus absolved of guilt and sin, but the poor hangman was left to shoulder them.
Adoor's protagonist in "Nizhalkkuthu", Kaliyappan, is amply compensated for the life of penitence: the `thampuran' showers him with a house, farmland and lots of money, but he is discouraged from being part of mainstream society.
Kaliyappan lives outside the village, and yet there is a strange umbilical cord that binds him to the rest. The people believe that he has powers to cure the ill. In what appears as a strange dichotomy, the very rope that is used to kill a convict turns miraculously into hope and life. Kaliyappan cuts a small bit of the rope, burns it and applies the ash on the forehead of the sick every time he is called upon to play doctor.
Despite this honour and privilege that the community gives Kaliyappan, his soul is tortured by what he considers to be an unfair and cruel form of justice. Adoor's `noose driver' drowns his sorrow in drink, and at one point in the narrative, he even imagines that the boy he is about to execute is his daughter's lover.
The early 1940s story that Adoor picturises with such precision continues to be relevant to this day. In what has been termed as a landmark statement on this practice of sending one to the gallows, an American judge once said that, ``capital punishment is for those without capital."
More pertinent, this form of penalty hardly serves the purpose. It does not deter crime, especially one of passion, and if we were to call ourselves evolved and civilised, ``a tooth for a tooth, and an eye for an eye,'' sounds brutal and barbaric.
Adoor, who met me recently (January 2003) in Madras/Chennai, agrees with all this, and there is little doubt as one hears him out that, ``a hangman's intense struggle with his conscience'' has been bothering the master maker for years.
The idea occurred to him when he read a novella by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. There was just one sentence there that got Adoor thinking: ``I kept watch over death." Later, Adoor read an interview with one of the executioners in Kerala, and the first draft of the script was ready. But that was in 1998, and in the classic Adoor style, he ruminated over this piece of writing. Nothing can hurry him.
Well, nine films in 30 years. But each has been an understated eloquence, though not always understood. Last year, the Cannes International Film Festival (May 2002) chose "Devdas" from India, not "Nizhalkkuthu" ! Later in 2002, it was screened at Venice.)
It is quite possible that the tale of regret and sorrow that Adoor weaves is quite at variance with not only Western thinking, but our own notions of the hangman.
``I grew up listening to stories of ferocious looking executioners with huge moustaches and blood-shot eyes," the auteur remarks.
Somewhere, Adoor must have paused and pondered, to realise that the man ready to snuff out the life of another can also be utterly human, agonising over what he is about to do.
Adoor documents the pain with remarkable sensibility, and Oduvil Unnikrishnan as Kaliyappan gives a sterling performance. He suggests in just about every expression of his, in just about every nuance that the State should not be a ``murderer''.
Amnesty International has chosen this movie as part of its global campaign against the death sentence.
The organisation may have been further impressed by the twist that Adoor gives to "Nizhalkkuthu." In one of the last scenes, Kaliyappan collapses just before an execution, and his son, a freedom fighter and Gandhiji's follower, has to step in as custom dictates.
``I have portrayed the son as the condemned," Adoor quips. ``The young man's `inheritance' spells the death of all his ideals''.
"Nizhalkkuthu" ends here, and one does not fail to notice the strong plea it makes against capital punishment. Of course, Adoor uses all the subtlety he has at his disposal to make this point.
Surely, heaven would not fall if the noose is put on the electric chair.
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated February 14 2003)