I have added this entry to my list of the 100 Greatest Films, which you will find elsewhere on this blog.
In early-1940s Travancore, Kaliyappan is the Maharajah’s hangman—considered holy, often deep in prayer (to Kali, Mother Goddess of creation/destruction), the ashes from burned portions of whose used ropes (which hang from a miniature noose) presumably cure the sick. Kaliyappan lives, secluded, with his affectionate family: wife Marakatam, son Muthu, 13-year-old daughter Mallika. An older daughter, married, lives nearby. Someone he executed Kaliyappan knows was innocent. Could hanging an innocent man be blamed on the executioner?
An execution awaits. Sick with dread and alcohol Kaliyappan tries begging out; but the State won’t budge. Journeying to the appointed place, Kaliyappan enters the dark night of his soul. “The condemned man cannot sleep [the night before the execution],” one of those accompanying him remarks, “so neither should the hangman.”
A story now told Kaliyappan, which we see as he envisions it, takes on a postmodern twist, casting Mallika as a rape-murder victim, Kaliyappan’s son-in-law as the predator, but Mallika’s gentle boyfriend as the one who pays. Tomorrow morning Kaliyappan will hang the boy, the storyteller explains, thus conflating both unjust hangings. Kaliyappan, overcome, collapses and Muthu is ordered to fill in—which he does, although as a Gandhian he is non-violent. As with Prince Hal upon becoming Henry V, Muthu must complete his father’s work.
Writer-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkkuthu indicts the pernicious ethos of individual responsibility, arguing instead for social responsibility, community, shared identity. (There is no moral “division of labor.”) It is a film of rituals, such as that marking Mallika’s entry into womanhood after her first menstruation. Gopalakrishnan finds humans resorting to religious faith to unburden themselves of the weight of personal responsibility that power structures have foisted upon them. The film distinguishes between authentic and illusory freedom, between dependency and independence, including national independence.
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