Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Have you ever wondered why the majority of prison wardens in the United States who have participated in executions are against the death penalty? Have you ever thought about why individuals who were about to be executed used to give their executioner a coin? The answer to the first question is that these wardens know that innocent people have been put to death, and they want no part of it. The answer to the second question is that the coin was a token of forgiveness to a person with a morally ambiguous job to do. Veteran Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan uses parallel stories to show the tragedy that is capital punishment.
The year is 1941, a time of social foment in India. Kaliyappan (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) is a hangman in Travancore (now part of the state of Kerala) at the southern tip of India. His willingness to do this distasteful job has afforded him many privileges from the Maharajah, including a house and fields to tend. Nonetheless, he carries a heavy burden. He has learned that one of the people he hanged was innocent. The guilt has driven him to heavy drinking. It has driven his son Muthu (Sunil) to seek guidance from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi.
The scene switches to a classroom of girls. A trickle of blood runs down one girl’s leg, and she starts to cry. The girl, Mallika (Reeja), has just begun her very first menstrual cycle. Later, at her home, many people are gathered to perform the rituals welcoming her into womanhood. Mallika is delighted with the attention and the new regard people show for her. After a glancing look between her and her brother-in-law, we return to Kaliyappan’s story.
On the road, an official finds himself stuck on the wrong side of a creek. Two villagers who encounter him inform him that he can wade across. The official, smartly dressed in a white uniform, curls his lip with distaste. The villagers end up carrying him across the creek and then inform him once they learn he is looking for Kaliyappan that he could have made the approach using the road. This interlude imitates the comedic moments found in Shakespearean tragedies.
Upon reaching Kaliyappan’s home, the official reads the decree that a new execution has been ordered. Kaliyappan is beside himself with grief, and complains that he is unwell. The official is unsympathetic. One simply does not postpone a hanging. The reason was made clear by the gossiping villagers who carried the official across the creek—the Maharajah absolves himself of guilt over the hanging by sending a full and complete pardon that is timed to reach the jail after the execution takes place!
Kaliyappan prepares ritually for the job ahead, purifying himself night and day with water and prayers to Kali, the wild and wrathful Hindu goddess and consort of Shiva the destroyer. Because Kali represents duality–destruction and creation–Kaliyappan is said to have the ability to cure the sick. He suspends the noose of his most recent victim above his altar to Kali. When a villager comes to him for a cure, he cuts a bit off the noose, burns it at the altar, and anoints the sufferer with the ashes. Now that a new execution has been ordered and Kaliyappan is praying feverishly and filling himself with the spirit of Kali, villagers start flocking to him for cures. By the time the officials come to take him to the site of execution, he is literally and figuratively at the end of his rope.
Once again, Kaliyappan tries to beg off due to illness. He does indeed look extremely ill. The official insists that he go, and that Muthu accompany him. A rueful look passes between father and son as they climb into a tiny, covered cart and are escorted to the execution site. Upon their arrival, Kaliyappan is fed drink after drink, which makes him sleepy. The rules say that he cannot sleep the night before an execution because his victim certainly will not be able to sleep. Two guards begin telling him classical stories, but these are too boring to keep Kaliyappan awake. One of the guards, after expressing doubt about the propriety of telling a story not prescribed by the rules, begins to relate the case of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. We return to Mallika’s story and become immersed in her short life of innocent love with an orphaned boy and her brutal end at the hands of her obsessed brother-in-law. An even more shocking revelation follows the story. In the end, Muthu the pacifist takes his father’s place on the gallows.
Gopalakrishnan takes his time setting the stage for this drama. Kaliyappan, his family, his habits, and his surroundings are lovingly captured to help us empathize with a man we might have dismissed as a repugnant drunk who exchanges state-sanctioned murder for material comfort. Every frame is like a painting, emphasizing the beauty and timelessness of this lush, tropical land and contrasting it with the dark environments of the people who inhabit it. In this way, Gopalakrishnan brings the spirit of Kali to life for us visually.
But he doesn’t refrain from shining a light on the very real social problem of capital punishment. The cynicism of the Maharajah, the careerism of the official who will not lose his job over a postponed execution, the soul-destroying toll it takes on the hangman, and the miscarriages of justice are all in plain view. Setting the film in 1941 has a slight distancing effect, however, and initiating Muthu forcibly into state-sanctioned slaughter seems heavyhanded, though plausible.
The parallel story structure also allows us to empathize with the feelings of the victim’s family in a way we did not expect to. We would think they would want to have revenge, but instead they choose to back up the murderer’s story so as not to leave their other daughter a widow, which was a horrible fate for an Indian woman at that time. They seem content to discard an innocent life in the process–perhaps the beliefs in reincarnation and the caste system make this more tenable in Indian society. However, we never get to see their reaction, so it is difficult to judge whether we are getting a true picture of family attitudes toward the murderers of their kin.
I have two other reviews on this site that deal with capital punishment. Deadline is a documentary about the death penalty, and Chicago features the hanging of an innocent woman convicted of killing her husband primarily because she was poor and couldn’t speak English. Joining them, Shadow Kill is a very fine fiction about this timely and troubling topic from a land exotic and beautiful, dark and familiar.