Monday, January 03, 2011


Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Language : Malayalam

The title refers to a popular Kathakali dance-drama inspired by an oral retelling from the Mahabharata dealing with morality, duty and the handing out of punishments. 

Kaliyappan (Oduvil Unnikrishnan), the hangman of the princely state of Travancore is tormented by the guilt of executing people for a living. He douses his guilt with toddy and ponders the irony of using ash from the burnt hangman's rope to cure ailments. The morbidity of his job is barely relieved by a loving family and a royal endowment of tax-free land. 

One day, Kaliyappan is informed that his services are required for an impending execution. As the date draws near, Kaliyappan's moral reluctance affects his health. On the appointed day, his son Muthu (Narain) accompanies him to the execution. 

To keep the hangman awake preceding the execution, the Jailer (Nedumudi Venu) narrates the tale of a young girl who was raped and murdered by her sister's husband, although the blame falls on a young orphan who wooed her. Kaliyappan, in his mind, finds resonances with his own life and gives in to empathy. When he wonders what happened next, he is told that it is the young orphan who is to be hanged in the morning. 

When fiction, fact and fragments from his own life merge imperceptibly, Kaliyappan becomes agitated and collapses. To carry out the execution on schedule, Kaliyappan's son, a Gandhian and a propogator of non-violence, ends up doing his father's job. 

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Padma Shri, the Padma Vibhushan and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Ilaiyaraaja's haunting background score transforms into a youthful lilt when the story of the girl is being narrated but returns to the hangman's story with a somber foreshadowing of imminent death.
(An edited version appeared in Culturama's January 2011 Issue)

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