Cineflections: Nizhalkuthu (Shadow Kill), Malayalam. 2002

-Manjula Jonnalagadda

Capital punishment in India is rare. It is mostly awarded in high profile cases. In India capital punishment is death by hanging. As a custom the person who is pulling the lever, recites an oath saying, “I have nothing against you, it is not personal, I am only doing my duty”.

This month film is a deviation from the last few months. The previous films I introduced all have woman themes and are based on short stories. This film has nothing to do with woman and is not based on any literary work. This film deals with the guilt associated with being a hangman. 

This film was made by Adoor Gopalakrishnan who also wrote the screenplay of the film. The film premiered in 2002 at the Venice Film Festival.  It won FIPRESCI award at the festival. It also won the National award for the feature film in Malayalam. Adoor needs no introduction to the film lovers. Most of his films have played at major film festivals around the world and won several International awards. His first film Swayamvaram which premiered at the Moscow film festival won the national award for the best film. Sarada won her second best actress award for it. He was a graduate of The Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. 

Nizahalkuthu (Shadow kill)’s title is inspired by a famous Malayalam play Nizhalkuthu Attakatha. The play is about the innocent losing their life for wrong reasons. The film has a somewhat similar theme. 

The film is set in 1941 in the kingdom of Travancore in Kerala. The protagonist of the film is a hangman named Kaliyappan. After hanging the sentenced the hangman keeps the rope. People in that region believe that ash from that rope is has special powers and can cure illnesses. There have been no hangings for a while. Kaliyappan’s first wife dies a few days after the last hanging. Kaliyappan feels guilty that he might have killed an innocent man. He doesn’t want to do this anymore. His son is influenced by Gandhi, he spins yarn, and speaks against death penalty. At this time, Kaliyappan is asked to perform another hanging.  

I personally am against the death penalty. Many times cops find some one to pin the crime on when there is a lot of heat on them.  It is the financially disadvantaged who pay the price. There are quite a few cases in US where the people sentenced to death have been found innocent after the DNA evidence has been examined. When someone’s life is taken they better be doubly and triply sure that the person is not innocent. The film makes this point without being heavy handed.

Also when a person is sentenced to death incorrectly, who is at fault? Is it the person who passed the sentence or the person who carried out the sentence (In this case the hangman)? In the film the king sends a letter of pardon very late so that it reaches the prison after the sentence is carried out. The hangman has to live with the guilt, even though it is probably his job. 

Adoor is a master filmmaker, this film is a very good example of that. When the son spins the spinning wheel to get yarn, the inmates are spinning the rope to hang the sentenced. Also the last scene before the hanging takes places, you just see shadows of people. These are just a few examples.

The film is very colorful. This is an interesting contrast as the plot of the film is very dark. Locations are extremely beautiful, the ponds, the hills, and the greenery. Of course the state of Kerala is known for its natural beauty. This film captures the beauty very well. The story is set in  the 40s and is completely shot the rural areas. The film was shot by two cinematographers. Ravi Varma a regular of Adoor started shooting the film, he fell sick half way through. Sunny Joseph who was assisting Ravi Varma completed the shoot.

Background score of the film is from Ilayaraja. It is exactly what you expect from him. If you didn’t know who scored the film, and you are familiar with Ilayaraja’s work, you can figure out. In other words it is very good!

The lead Oduvil Unnikrishnan was excellent as Kaliyappan. It was a tough role, he completely nailed it from the shivers to the attire. In a travesty Ajay Devgan was given the best actor in national films awards that year. It is really sad Unnikrishnan was robbed. Rest of the performances were very good as well.

Watch the film, it makes you think. Watch it for sheer brilliance of Adoor, the performances. It will stay with you.


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