Review by V. G. Baburaj from www.chaosmag.net
Nizhalkkuthu : shadow kill : an act of black magic that has reference to the Mahabharata, where the practitioner exhorts the spirit of the one to be killed, to enter a symbolic shadow and then stabs it. Thus the one whose spirit is entrapped, is killed.
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Nizhalkkuthu by Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a deceptively simple film at its exterior. But, if one is able to tread his way in, it is an extremely complex film with many layers to it. Perhaps a narrative that is similar to Adoor's own earlier film, Anantharam.
At one level, Nizhalkkuthu is a film about Kaliyappan who is mentally traumatised being a hangman, and largely because some of the convicts, he thought were innocents.
How could a man, whoever he is, kill another? Even if he thinks that he is right by doing so or if the other is guilty in his perception? It could be one's limited perception and even more limited analysis of the facts available to him. And what shall one do to wash away the sins he has commited by killing or causing to kill someone. When the truth can not be assumed to a logical conclusion, as illustrated by Kurasawa's Rashomon, how could it be framed into a law or system?
On the other hand a system (read state) is not able to function without such a framework. Because a framework of the system makes it convenient to carry out its objectives. Therefore, a system will administer what fits its convenience. In Anand's novel 'Journeys of Govardhan'*, when the king finds the guilty's neck too big for the noose, he orders to find a neck that suits the noose, in order to protect the law and therefore the state. It is important for the state to administrate its laws to sustain itself. If it fails to do so, it (the state) will collapse.
So, it does not matter for the state if it can not find out the truth, but it shall force its laws on someone it finds convenient to assume guilty. Even if he is or could be innocent. Such a dilemma is only the threshold of Nizhalkkuthu.
The story is set in 1940's pre independent India, where we see the hangman Kaliyappan's son bringing home a charkha. He tells his younger sister that with the threads made in his charkha, would be woven to create some colourful clothes for her.
Charkha, in 40's context becomes a symbolic tool of independence. Obviously with reference to Gandhi's independence movement and his use of charkha in his battle against the powerful British empire. A simple thread that is created out of charkha gained a revolutionary dimension.
The genius of Adoor uses this simple thread as the core metaphor in his film, Nizhalkkuthu.
From the thread that was being formed in the (Kaliyappan's son's) charkha, Adoor deftly cuts to a magical shot of numerous lines of threads and to the prisoners transforming these threads into a thick twisted rope.
A hangman's rope.
This becomes a rare and exceptionally powerful metaphor used in Indian cinema.
Thus the metaphorical thread transforms into different things for different people. A weapon to fight for (the society's) independence to the young man. Hope and aspirations for the young girl. And a hanging (executing) rope for the state.
A power-centric state thrives on by annihilating its citizen's freedom and by taking away their rights and aspirations. Kaliyappan's trauma and pain is for his proximity to this truth.
The hapless Kaliyappan, who has become a tool in the clutches of the state, would know better about the innocence of the convicts. It is only his sensitivity that makes him identify with the victims or the convicts. Here, the suffering of the convict and the hangman becomes one. It is only that sensitivity that makes him feel, everything that is happening around him, is happening to himself.
Kaliyappan simply is the conscience of the society.
A deeply agonised Kaliyappan could seek solace only in mother Kali. Mother nature. Once provoked she could turn herself into the absolute destroyer. Only she could destroy everything that has wronged and recreate them new.
It is by submitting to her, Kaliyappan too possess the power to heal. The killer turns healer. By doing a reverse act. By burning the hangman's rope.
This becomes the doing of Nizhalkkuthu.
Abolishing the (wronged) state, by burning it's symbol of dictatorial power.
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At the final sequence, when Kaliyappan's son substitutes him as the hangman, the way it has been treated is as if he (Kaliyappan's son), is the convict himself who is sentenced for the capital punishment, is quite an ending of strength and prophecy.
The conflict between the state and the individual remains one of the most relevant subjects ever. From Kafka to Anand and to Adoor.
Someone said a good film starts after you leave the cinema hall. True to Adoor's Nizhalkkuthu, some of the jarring elements starts to fade away and at another level a powerfully profound cinema starts to begin.
*'Journeys of Govardhan', an outstanding novel by famous Malayalee writer Anand