A Hangman's Tale

in 6th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Madhu Eravankara

In his latest film “Shadow Kill” (Nizhalkkuthu), Adoor Gopalakrishnan explores the turbulent mind of a hangman, the official executioner in the princely state of Travancore of 1941.

And that’s the story. The hangman is constantly haunted by the guilty feeling that the last person hanged by him was innocent. He resorts to drinking and fervent prayers to overcome his guilt. The hangman’s rope when burnt as incense before Goddess Kali heals the sick. People in his village and around believe therefore that the hangman possesses divine power as he could take one’s life. When he receives orders from the King to perform another execution he is quite unwilling. In his agony and helplessness, he falls sick and is put to a bed covered with a black cloth. In fact the incidents following after could be considered as the fantasy of the executioner which gives a new dimension to the film. He is so worried about his younger daughter who attained puberty recently, and he has shockingly noticed the lust in the eyes of his son-in-law towards her. However he has to obey the order of the King. In spite of his ill health, he is summoned to jail. His son, a Gandhian, accompanies him even though he is against execution. During the night vigil before the execution, the jail warden narrates the story of a thirteen year old girl brutally raped and killed by her own brother-in-law. The hangman in his alcohol hazed mind visualises it as his own story, thus making a story within a story.

“Shadow Kill” dwells on many levels of interpretation. The title of the film itself takes its origin from an episode of “Mahabharata”: the bad ‘Kauravas’ orders a black magic performer to convene the shadows of the good ‘Pandavas’ and kills them, using the technique of ‘shadow killing’. In the film the hangman could be fitted very much in the place of the black magic performer. Both of them, the hangman and the legendary performer, have no enmity to the people they are killing. They are doing it for the sake of others who hold power. The sad plight of the common people always, indeed.

Again the inner story that develops in the mind of the hangman is like the shadow in the ‘shadow kill’ process. The shadow is virtual. But the real is superimposed on the virtual. Eventually it becomes one and the same. So the warden’s story becomes the hangman’s own story too.

The delicate question asked in the film of who bears the sin of execution is very relevant in the larger context of politics. In this sense “Shadow Kill” is political too. To expiate the sin of execution, the Maharaja passes an order relieving the prisoner just before the execution – but interestingly, the order reaches the jail only after the hanging.

In its treatment, its precise use of cinematic language, and in making a perfect sound track, Adoor Gopalakrishnan shows exceptional brilliance. “Shadow Kill” is the realisation of his humaneness and social concern. Indeed, a good film expands one’s own vistas of experience. It tempts one to view it again and again. “Shadow Kill” is the masterly and faithful depiction of human psyche.