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Set in the 1940s India, in Travancore, as elsewhere in India death by hanging was a prevalent penal practice...

india Updated: Oct 18, 2003 16:33 IST

Producer/Director/Screenplay: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

The story is set in pre-Independence India of the 1940s. In the southern princely state of Travancore (a constituent of present-day Kerala), as elsewhere in the country, death by hanging was a prevalent penal practice.

The State had its own professional executioner, traditionally the head of a designated family. Settled way out in a border village, he was not to have any direct links or dealings with the mainstream society.

In return for the practice of the dreaded profession, the Hangman used to enjoy a few privileges from the royalty – housing, agricultural lands, a yearly allowance and special monetary benefits and gifts for each job done.

With each hanging, the villagers believed the hangman came to possess divine powers derived from the Goddess Kali herself and the ash made from the hangman’s rope was a miracle healer.

All the same, nothing could compensate for the guilt that keeps haunting him from the realization that the last man he hanged was innocent.

It is after a long interval – even as the hangman believed that he had put his ghastly vocation behind him – that a royal messenger arrives to order an execution afresh… A reluctant Kaliyappan prepares himself with prayers and penance. His sick and worn out physique finds the rigour too difficult to endure.

Finally the appointed day closes in and he is taken to the capital town under police escort and high security. All the tests and trials are completed at the gallows and the jail administration is satisfied with the preparations. The actual execution will take place early next morning.

At the rest house, in a mute attempt to kill his sense of guilt and fear, the hangman starts drinking encouraged by the jail warders. The night is long and a tired and drunk Kaliyappan cannot help feeling sleepy.

But then that is scandalous. The condemned prisoner awaiting execution in the morning cannot sleep, so the hangman shouldn’t sleep either: they are in a way alike being positioned at the ends of the rope, one of the warders reasons.

In order to keep the hangman awake, the jail warders start narrating stories. Bored with the righteous tone of it Kaliyappan longs for something that would fight his sleep.

A second warder takes over and there develops before Kaliyappan a story that takes him in completely. He starts transposing people and places into the roles and locales in the story that the warder narrates.

The 13-year-old girl, whose brutal rape and murder is described in the jail warder’s story, becomes fused in Kaliyappan’s alcohol-hazed mind with his own young daughter.

In a close examination, the jail warder’s story is a replay of the execution of the innocent boy the memory of which has been haunting Kaliyappan for life.

Camera: Ravi Varma & Sunny Joseph
Editor: Ajithkumar B.
Art: Rateesh Babu
Music: Ilayaraja
Sound: Hari Kumar

First Published: Oct 11, 2003 01:35 IST