It is the early 1940s; India is on the cusp of Independence.
In a remote village in Nagercoil, on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, lives Kaliyappan (Oduvil Unnikrishnan), official executioner to the state of Travancore.
It is a family profession, handed down -- by royal decree -- from father to son.
He performs a vital function for the state, yet the state is uncomfortable with his proximity. Thus, while he is given a house and lands, it is outside the boundaries of Travancore, far enough removed so that he does not have to mingle with people he may have to hang one day.
Kaliyappan is the protagonist, and fulcrum, of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's latest film, Nizhalkuthu (Shadow Kill). Around him revolve a cast of characters swept into the vortex of Kaliyappan and his macabre profession.
There is his unobtrusive, understanding wife, Marakatam (Sukumari); his elder daughter, Madhavi (Tara Kalyan), and her husband, Vasu (Murali), out to get as much out of her father as they can; younger daughter, Mallika (Reeja), newly come to puberty and discovering the joys of calf love; son Muthu (Sunil), young, idealistic, an active participant in Gandhiji's freedom movement; and, crucially, a host of villagers ambivalent in their attitude towards Kaliyappan and his profession.
At one level, the villagers feel a tinge of contempt for a man who lives off the deaths of others; at another level, superstition runs deep -- the villagers believe the hangman is touched by divinity.
The rope used for hanging is woven by inmates of the prison; when its work is done, the hangman takes it home and hangs it in his puja room above the icon of the family deity, Durga.
It is universally believed that if a strand from the rope is burnt, the resulting ash can cure anything from fever and cold to epilepsy and beyond.
The various characters swirl and eddy through the story, but the focus is firmly fixed on the hangman himself. He is a disillusioned man; aware that the last time he plied his trade, the man he executed turned out to be innocent.
He stares -- like Lady Macbeth in a lungi -- at his hands and wonders what it will take to wash off the sin. Adding to his angst is one of those tricks that the state, everywhere, plays to absolve itself of responsibility: the maharaja is the ultimate arbiter of life and death; it is he who sentences a prisoner to death and summons the hangman to do the deed.
The maharaja however keeps a written pardon ready and, on the day of the execution, dispatches it so that it arrives after the deed is done. The official pardon is then read out over the body of the executed one -- in one stroke, the maharajah has cleansed himself of guilt and transferred it to the hangman.
So who, and what, is he? Is he a functionary carrying out the orders of the state, or is he that most abhorrent of men, one who murders so that he and his family may live? Is he guilty, or innocent?
During the day, he seeks answers within himself to the questions that increasingly torment him; at night, Kaliyappan seeks escape from those answers in alcohol; he finds however that the demons of the mind can swim with ease even in a sea of arrack.
So the story builds, to the day the herald of the maharaja arrives in the village to summon the ailing Kaliyappan to perform another execution.
On this thread, Adoor Gopalakrishnan hangs a story of guilt and of redemption; of freedom and entrapment; of individual and collective responsibility.
In terms of craft, the film is, in a sense, typical Adoor: the set-up is slow, with the trademark touches of understated humour that counterpoints, and throws into stark relief, the turbulence to follow.
The pacing, too, is classic Adoor: a swift series of events propel the story forward from the starting line; then the story is put in limbo while the director concentrates on slow, almost languid, character development; then follows another swift sequence of events followed by another period of limbo, and so on.
Nizhalkuthu, like the previous eight films in the Adoor oeuvre, is intense, gripping, and disturbing; it discomfits you, it fills you with questions long after the screen has turned dark and the theatre has emptied.
Yet there are differences between this latest film and his previous works; a very obvious one is his use of some classic clichés of mainstream cinema.
There are the extended, loving shots of lush paddy fields dancing gently in the breeze; thus the picture postcard settings against which the innocent romance of two young lovers is played out; or the recurring shot, almost a signature, of a portion of the roof of Kaliyappan's home, bordered by the closely twined fronds of palm trees or the extended shot of three women bathing in the temple tank.
There is, too, in this film a greater use of, and reliance on, the externals -- notably lush cinematography; also evocative music by no less than the maestro, Ilayaraja.
The clichés don't do much for the film; the externals -- even, at times, the majestic score -- pass unnoticed as the film sweeps you up into its vortex. On the odd occasion, the pace -- or lack thereof -- distracts; it allows the mind to wander, confident that it can go walkabout for a bit and return without having missed anything of significance.
To tell his story, Adoor assembles a quality ensemble cast led by Oduvil Unnikrishnan. The veteran actor has, for decades now, distinguished himself with his portrayal of characters both solid and funny; here, he raises his craft to a different dimension with an evocative portrayal of the angst-ridden hangman.
Supporting Oduvil are the likes of Sukumari as the wife, Tara Kalyan and Reeja as the daughters, Sunil as the son, Murali as the son-in-law, and Nedumudi Venu and Vijayaraghavan as jailers. Most of them are seasoned actors; Adoor gets them to raise their personal bars and perform at a higher level.
Yet, there is in the film symptoms of a filmmaker nearing his personal perfection; signs that, over 32 years, he has honed his craft to as near pitch-perfection as he is capable; that his period of experimentation is over and that any film(s) that follow will, technically, tread the path broken by this one.
Nizhalkuthu, in the final analysis, comes across as a masterwork; a film that seeps in through the eyes and envelops the mind and doesn't let go.CREDITS
Cast: Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Sukumari, Reeja, Tara Kalyan, Sunil, Murali, Sivakumar, Jagathy Sreekumar, Nedumudi Venu, Vijayaraghavan, Indrans and others.
Story, script, direction: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Production: Adoor Gopalakrishnan Productions
Co-production: Artcam International, Paris, with the support of the Fonds Sud Ministere Francaise de la Culture Centre, National de la Cinematographie Ministere des Affaires Etrangers, the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Montecinemaverita Foundation, the Swiss Agency For Development and Cooperation, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
Cinematography: Ravi Varma, Sunny Joseph