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August 20, 2005

Shadow Kill, 2002

shadowkill.gifExploring similar human rights issues as Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging on the sociopolitical framework that lies beneath the inequitable administration of justice and capital punishment, Shadow Kill is told from the perspective, not of the condemned but of the reluctant executioner, an aging, guilt-ridden hangman named Kaliyappan. Set in colonial-era state of Travancore in Kerala, an idyllic, rural outpost in the southwest tip of India, the images of lush, textured landscapes of the film visually presage a thematic divergence from Death By Hanging wherein the clinical and sterile setting reflect the rhetorical tone and delineated logical argument of Oshima's cerebral polemic. Rather, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's vision of state-sponsored execution and intractable social codes are set against the overarching context of universal balance, cyclical natural order, and even fated inevitability. The opening sequence, composed of a single image of an extended black screen, provides a temporal dislocation to Kaliyappan's story: devoid of associative images, the introductory passage presents an (appropriately) terse summary of the appointment, imposed isolation, duties, and interconnected rituals of death and healing associated with the everyday life of a professional executioner, a "privileged" vocation that is traditionally passed on from father to son. In the opening sequence, a drunken, world-weary Kaliyappan sits in the counter of a tavern recounting his belated discovery of a condemned man's true innocence after carrying out his execution, a knowledge that has haunted him for much of his life. But in the death ritual is also the promise of salvation as the hanging rope is presented to the executioner to be burned in spare increments (until the next hanging) before the altar of Kali (the goddess of creation and destruction) and the holy ashes anointed upon the sick in order to cure them of their illnesses. (Note that the early episode of his daughter's celebration of womanhood is contrasted against the recounted episode of a young girl's violation and that the same actor portrays the brother-in-law in both sequences, further reinforcing the idea of the human condition as a universal, collective interconnectedness). One day, Kaliyappan is instructed to prepare for an execution and begins his ritual of purification, a period of intense meditation and focused spirituality that brings him extraordinary powers of healing. However, as the fated, grim ritual draws near, Kaliyappan begins to doubt his ability to bear the moral burden and carry out another execution (since the Mararaja has devised a convenient way to absolve himself of any guilt by dispatching a procedural pardon a few minutes before the appointed hour knowing that the document will arrive too late to save the condemned prisoner), and the looming reality of the inevitable execution increasingly pushes him further towards maniacal escapism, alternating between lapses of purifying, transcendent prayer and emotionally dulling constant intoxication. Gopalakrishnan's penchant for aesthetic naturalism, evocative compositions, and visual economy are particularly well suited to the idyllic landscapes of his native Kerala, creating an intrinsic juxtaposition between the timeless beauty and natural paradise of the countryside, and the unnatural, man-made acts of destruction (and self-destruction) that occur within it: an eternal violation of natural law that can only be set right by the spiritual healing of moral recognition and acceptance of personal responsibility.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005


What a great film this is. Unfortunately, though Adoor has a great repuatation in India, this is the only one of his films I've managed to see. (I've heard The Rat Trap is amazing). He was at the TIFF Q&A--such a quiet, humble man. It was 3 years ago and can't remember the specifics of what he said about the film.

A cruel irony that is alas all too commonplace in the cosmology of India: the hanging rope has healing powers!

Posted by: girish on Aug 20, 2005 5:31 PM | Permalink

It is indeed. There's something almost otherwordly and fable-like, but relevant about his method of storytelling. Interesting that you mentioned the rope because the premise about burning the rope and using the ashes to cure people struck me as being a kind of parallel of Lent in that palms from one year's Palm Sunday are burned the following year for ashes on Ash Wednesday (beginning of that year's Lent).

I also couldn't help but think that there may have been a statement in there about the Christian ideal of sacrificing one's life to save others, but in a kind of transformed, perverted, and forced way that has become estranged from the originl intent of the sacrifice. Having watched a good spate of African colonialism films this year, I thought that this may been related to the British occupation (since the story is set in World War II, during the final years of colonialism) specifically, in the way that Indians were often forced to sacrifice their lives (either as soldiers or by diverting their food to feed the army) for the "greater good": the integrity of the British Empire.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 20, 2005 7:05 PM | Permalink

Interesting angle, A.
You may well be on to something there--Kerala is the Indian state with the highest % of Christians. St. Thomas the apostle landed there too.

Also, it's been so long but I seemed to vaguely remember that the girl who was raped was his daughter. I'm probably mistaken though.
Have you seen other Adoor?

Posted by: girish on Aug 20, 2005 7:22 PM | Permalink

Ah, she very well could be. I did notice that the brother-in-law was also the brother-in-law in the storytelling sequence since he had the distinctive handlebar moustache, and there was certainly something figurative about their social and familial roles.

Interesting insight into Kerala's Christian population. I think watching a lot of Jean-Marie Téno's films on post-colonial Cameroon has made me a bit more in tune with a kind of "native" perspective that missionaries and colonialists are really the same thing and had the same effect on the indigenous population. That's why seeing it in such a poetic, non-essay film like Shadow Kill just seemed like such a rich and imaginative way to show that idea without hitting you over the head with it.

This was my first Gopalakrishnan too, and like you, I've been scouring for opportunities to see The Rat Trap and also Face to Face, both films singled out in the John Hood book. By the way, did you notice that the DVD for the film is being released by First Run on October 25? I can't wait to see it again, it's such a thematically loaded film.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 20, 2005 8:54 PM | Permalink

Wow no idea it was coming out on DVD. Great news!

I teach in a Jesuit college and have heard countless (horror) stories about the systematic manner in which missionaries infiltrate native communities, learn their languages, master their culture and rituals, on the surface out of a "respectful" desire to "help" the natives but of course in reality to proselytize and abet colonization.

Posted by: girish on Aug 20, 2005 10:18 PM | Permalink

"Rat Trap" is my dad's fav Adoor Gopalakrishnan film. I have yet to check the movie out...BTW, did u check out Shaji Karun's "Piravi" Or "Vanprastham" yet, Mr. Acquarello?

Posted by: Rakesh on Aug 27, 2005 11:20 AM | Permalink

Well, I'm getting closer at least. :) I have the DVD of Vanaprastham on my unwatched pile. I'm in the process of writing notes on the John Hood book, Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen this weekend, so I was going to write on Sen's Ek Din Pratidin as a corollary piece. I'll see how it goes, maybe I'll have time later this weekend, although writing always takes a lot longer than I think it will.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 27, 2005 1:25 PM | Permalink

Hi acquarello,

I am joining this discussion a bit late but I only got to see this movie a few days ago. Unfortunately, this is the only Adoor movie I have been able to get. I do want to see Rat Trap and his previous flicks though.

One comment on the brother in law shown in the movie. At the start of the movie, after Kaliyappan's daughter's coming of age celebration, when the brother in law is leaving, he turns back to look at the daughter. This look in his eye is noticed both by Kaliyappan and his wife.
And when in the end, the story is being narrated at the police station, I could not help wonder if something had indeed hapenned to Kaliyappan's daughter or not? But it might have been that look from the brother in law laid the seed of doubt in Kaliyappan's mind and which is what led him to imagine the story with his daugther as the main character.
In the narrated story, the girl and man (who commits the crime) are Kaliyappan's daughter and brother in law.

Interesting movie. Also another ironic aspect is how the son who wants to follow the path of Gandhi is sucked into following his father's foot steps.

Posted by: Sachin on Nov 17, 2005 12:05 PM | Permalink

Interesting. I haven't seen the film since, but didn't the brother-in-law leave in a huff because they wouldn't lend him money? I figured that it was a kind of "evil eye" look, but that's true, it was ambiguous enough that it could be taken to mean a few things.

I agree about the son's fate too, especially since it seemed to be more tragic in that he didn't even seem to try to fight this tradition of "family obligation" even though it clearly went against his own moral beliefs. There's an inescapable fatedness about their existence in that sense.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 17, 2005 9:11 PM | Permalink

Adoor was on TV the other day and very much the silent, humble guy as Girish points out above. I am amazed by his reclusive peace, while some of his illustrious (and offbeat?) Bombay counterparts are desperate to claim mainstream recognition... busy patting comic Abbas and playing gullible hosts in some distant Sajjanpur.

Apart from The Mouse trap, Kodiyettam is another poetic Adoor product - the story of a silent transformation that throws poignant light on marital and other relationships and the in-built voids. So is Swayamvaram - a bold film for its time (1972) showing the despodency and despair of a live-in couple as their chemistry disturbs many a societal equations...

With Acquarilo as the analyst, it would only be poetic justice if more of Adoor is reviewed here, else we know the apathy for legends like him, back home in India.

Posted by: Sudhir Raikar on Jul 10, 2010 8:56 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the confidence, Sudhir. Unfortunately, I think there's a similar marginalization here with respect to parallel cinema too. Every now and then, there will be a Gopalakrishnan screening at Walter Reade in NYC, like Shadow Kill at Film Comment Selects and Dance of the Enchantress for the Dance on Camera Series, but I'd love to see a nice retrospective put together for a lot of these masters, and I haven't anything like that in a long time. The last time was probably the long overdue Satyajit Ray series at WRT last year, and he's a relatively much bigger name.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 10, 2010 12:10 PM | Permalink

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