Monday, March 26, 2012

Shadow Kill (Nizhalkkuthu)

2002, 90 min., Not Rated - Adult situations. No language or nudity.

The 73rd Virgin says... The opening credits explain that hanging was a common punishment in pre-independence India and the hangman was typically a high born member of an important family. By virtue of keeping the used rope and burning it as needed for holy ashes he is something of a village doctor as well. I assume the religion is Hindu. Most of his worship revolves around the goddess Kali. The language is Malayalam (like I would know that), with very good subtitles.

We learn that the hangman is troubled by the hanging of an innocent man years ago and fears the sin is on his hands. He drinks a lot. Otherwise he lives a normal life with his loving second wife and young daughter. His son favors independence, is a follower of Gandhi and opposes the death penalty, and their older daughter is married to a local man. The first half gives us long stately sequences showing village life with lots of ritual and naturalistic acting. For instance, the hangman’s daughter has her onset of menses and gets what every girl dreams of – a party with blaring horn and the whole village there to cheer her on. I guess it’s better than being sent to pray at the back of the mosque.

Soon enough an assignment arrives to hang another man. The orders come from one of the Maharaja’s outlandishly uniformed officials. The hangman whines that he is too old and sick to perform his duty but the official tells him to bring his son along to help, which sets up the final conflict and apparent tragedy.

In one of the most striking sequences the director cuts from the son spinning yarn Gandhi-style to the manufacture of the hangman’s rope at the central jail.

Here a couple guys who wander through the movie from time to time as a kind of Greek chorus explain how the Maharaja avoids the sin of an execution. Pretty slick.

There is much to like in all the lovingly filmed rituals such as the hangman's Gethsemane moment and yet another visually rhyming scene transition.

Not a very comfy ride.

Up to this point we’re probably in 4 sheep range. But then finally we are off to the city to do the deed. Tradition requires that the hangman remain awake the night before the execution. Since he is very tired, the soldier guards tell a story to keep him going. And here is where the trouble starts. The soldier’s story is told in flashback and in the hangman’s head the story is played out with members of his own family, ending in a rape and murder.

I had forgotten this cheery feature of traditional Indian cinema - that there is usually an off-screen rape, sometimes with bonus murder. I flashed back to sitting in the Student Union in about 1979 watching the Indian master Satyajit Ray’s "Distant Thunder" and thinking roughly “why the hell in a movie about war refugees is there an almost unrelated scene involving women digging wild potatoes in the forest and being pursued by a black-robed man who nearly twirls his mustache”, or something. It’s here too. And the whole story is slow and predictable and takes up almost 35 minutes in the second half of the movie.

So a slow but pretty engaging art-house movie turns into a predictable and equally slow melodrama for about 35 minutes and then jumps back to art-house reality long enough to make 90 total minutes seem long and not as good as it should have been. I would like to gorge myself on a big slab of cultural virtue pie with an extra dip of patronization ice cream on top by calling this an international classic - but I can’t. It’s good.

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