Exploring 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.
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