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Movie Critic Review: Shadow Kill 2003

Adoor Gopalakrishnan's
Nizhalkkuthu or Shadow Kill 2003

Boy what a job! To be a hangman!
Ironically it is a privileged job that can only be inherited!
And guess what? You could get a promotion and retirement benefits and be the only licensed hangman in the state or maybe one of only three in the country!
After all, according to Canadian poet Margaret Atwood in her poem “ Marrying the Hangman”: The hangman is not such a bad fellow.The hangman is not such a bad fellow.The hangman is not such a bad fellow.The hangman is not such a bad fellow.The hangman is not such a bad fellow.
Let's examine some of what these horrible professionals had to say.
The hangman who wrongfully executed a man in Liverpool in 1950 (his story was also made into a 2005 movie) has been quoted as stating that the hanging took longer than `it should have', raising the question: how did you (manage) to kill him, then?
Modern research in countries that banned this tool for effecting capital punishment (or banned capital punishment itself) has shown that there is no absolute certainty that killing
by hanging can be swift (enough) and non-agonizing! The hangman might buy a shorter or cheaper rope relative to your weight and keep the change! The last hangings in the UK
were in 1964.
In his novel Going Postal Terry Pratchett’s amusing hangman urges his fussy victim:
"Come on, Mr. Spangler, you don't want me to get into trouble, do you?" said the hangman, patting him on the shoulder. "Just a few words, and then we can all get on with our lives. Present company excepted, obviously."
Hangmen “do not worry about the eternal fate of their soul”. According to the short story The Hangman by Arijit Sen, the 84 year old hangman who was ordered back in service, though he was long retired, because no one wants to take the job, told the young prisoner he was to hang the next morning: “I will see you soon, my son!” And went out to see what the weather was like!
Hangmen Also Die (1943) and Hangmen (1987) which starred Sandra Bullock are two
films that rank high on the list '150 Movies You Should (Die Before You) See'!
But not all hangman movies are bad. Tarrantino's From Dusk till Dawn 3, though not critically accalimed, is quite watchable.
A great hangman movie, I suppose, if not meant to be a horror movie which is quite an appropriate fate for it, is best dealt with as a political movie.
While The Hangman 1964, an animated recital of a poem by Maurice Ogden which depicts the Holocaust (see notes below), was packed with political bias and had drawn on an older more famous poem by German Martin Noemiller, written also from the perspective of the convicted (First they came to the communists and I did not speak out because...),
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s movie Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill) is told from the perspective of the
hangman in his politically designed psychological agony!
Superbly featuring the great actor Oduvil Unnikrishnan (who died in 2005) Nizhalkkuthu is an artistic affirmation of the relationship between the hangman and the heirarchy of power whether it be national or colonial. It is also a cry against capital punishment and support for the victims (hangmen included!)
Nizhalkkuthu probes into the psychological trauma of a hangman and interconnects it with politics and power in post-independence India.
Set in Kerala, (in India) at the early 1940s, the film unwinds into multiple layers of story-telling that depict the struggle between colonially-backed policies of oppression and new emerging Ghandian forces that, presumably, did not care to eradicate colonial rules and practices of oppression and punishment. But this political nature of the film is attenuated or (desloganised) by a thorough examination of the existential situation of the characters in it including, for the first time in Adoor's movies, loud popular music by a master music composer for films.
“A hangman in a southern Indian village who has spent his life carrying out politically motivated executions is now old and so.." wrecked with guilt that he takes to heavy drinking and praying to the goddess Kali to forgive his sins. This becomes the more so after he finds out that his last hanging was done on an innocent man.

As solace and salvation, in a society that believes in legends and superstitions, and by his representation of power, the hangman manages to link his rope to redemption and healing! People come to seek remedy and healing from the very symbol of dying and decay- his rope, which he keeps hanging in a room designated for this holy purpose. He cuts from the rope just like a butcher does when you show him which part of the animal you desire. Then he burns this cut part and sprinkles its (holy) ashes on the sick and they….get cured from their various illnesses. He gets a temporary illusion of salvation from his sins!  

But, there comes a time when nobody wants to be a hangman and all the authorities can do to save the killing apparatus is to bring the veterans, the retirees,  like this hangman, to do the executing.
This last execution really devastates him and he is unable to carry it out. 
As a tradition, his son, although a Ghandian follower, must carry out the execution instead of his father. Keeping the job of hangman is probably only possible within one and the same family. That is the norm in many societies that still legally break the neck as a punishment.
This ensures that power (or the association with it) runs in families and can also be passed on from tyrants to neo-tyrants!

Although Adoor has written his movie in the context of a certain mytholgical incident,
which augments the mystery and multi-layering of the movie and makes it
re-watchable, an ultimate goal for any filmmaker, it is challenging to the uninitiated or the casual watcher.
The name of the movie itself Nizhalkkuthu has been translated into Shadow Kill or less frequenlty Killing of a Shadow. A translation that has no meaning by itself apart from its mythological grounding!
Without burdening the reader's mind (and, indeed, mine in the first place), the Malayalam myth has it that one can, through witch-craft and evil association, kill a victim, not directly, but by stabbing his shadow! So we have a rare kind of liquidating a human-being without bothering to fight or stalk him. Nice kind of killing, right? But what did Adoor mean by this employment of a complex myth?

Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill or Killing the Shadow) 2003 Color 92 min. 
India. Language: Malayalam (with English subtitles).
Genre: Drama
Cast: Oduvil Unnikrishnan (the hangman), Sukumari, Reeja...
Music: Ilayaraja (one of India’s outstanding film music score composers)
Cinematographer: Verma (did only part of it before he developed Alzheimer's disease!)
Written, Co-produced and directed by: (Dr.) Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of India's master filmmakers and one of the most prominent
New Wave Cinema in India.
Below is what this great filmmaker has achieved so far:
British Film Institute Award for the most original and imaginative film of 1982.
The International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) has gone to him five times successively for
his movies Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan and Kathapurushan.
His films have been shown in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam, and Toronto, and festivals around the world.
Note On Hangman 1964 (animated poetry recitation)

"A cynical look at how humankind loves to feed others into the death machine, from a disturbing poem by Maurice Ogden, read by Herschel Bernardi. Shadows and shifting geometric planes lend a Chirico-like quality to Julian's animation. Great musical score by Serge Hovey.
Its plot concerns a hangman who arrives at a town and executes the citizens one by one.
As each citizen is executed, the others are afraid to object out of fear that they will be next.

All photos are courtsey of the website:

Notes on Adoor Golpalakrishnan:

Interview with Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan


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