Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill”

Haim Watzman

In the final scene of Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s film Shadow Kill (Nizhalkuthu), a young man, dressed in black, sets out to perform his first hanging. The young man, Muthu, is the son of the hereditary executioner of the south Indian principality of Travancore. He is a Gandhian nationalist and pacifist who has made speeches in his village against the death penalty. Yet upon his father’s death, during the night before the execution, Muthu accepts the doom of his descent-even though he knows that the boy around whose neck he is about to place the noose is innocent.

Such an end implies that we have just seen (at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot, see my post Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala) a film about how Muthu wrestles with his heritage, resists, and then accepts it. But in fact it is not Muthu but his father, Kaliyappan, who agonizes, from the story’s first scene to its penultimate one, about having killed an innocent man the last time he was called from his village to perform his office. Emulating his hero, Muthu buys a spinning wheel to spin out string, which is taken to the local jail to be made into rope. It’s Kaliyappan who, like the Greek fate-goddess Atropos, cuts the rope-the rope of his last hanging, whose ashes, burnt in ritual and prayer, are a balm that heals the sick and troubled.

In keeping with tradition, on the night prior to the execution, the king’s police officers ply Kaliyappan with liquor and keep him from sleeping (he must not sleep, because his victim is certainly not sleeping this night) by telling him stories. The story that finally helps keep the elderly executioner awake is about a romance between a young teenage girl and an orphan flutist. The girl asks the boy to teach her to play his instrument; when he leaves her to practice, the girl is attacked, raped, and killed by her brother-in-law, who has developed an uncontrollable passion for her. The flute found in her hands implicates the orphan boy; the girl’s family knows who the real murderer is but protects him.

As a policeman tells this story, we see it played before us through Kaliyappan’s eyes. The young girl takes the form of his youngest daughter; the murderer the guise of his son-in-law. When the executioner asks what happened to the boy in the end, the policeman laughs and tells him that this is the boy he is scheduled to hang at dawn. The executioner suffers a seizure and dies, and Muthu is told to take his place.

A Western viewer cannot help but ask why Muthu accedes. Why doesn’t he use his position to challenge and change tradition? It is surprising, and disturbing, that we do not even see him consider this possibility.

The images Gopalakrishnan uses to tell his story perhaps provide a clue. Wind, light, and water stand out as motifs, almost characters in and of themselves, that we encounter time and again. His stunning shots of the village’s houses and fields, and the woods on the slopes of the nearby mountains, convey a sense of timelessness where life and death meet. Indeed, the film is replete with symbols that signify both death and life simultaneously-the rope, the drunken hangman’s arak, menstrual blood, all presided over by the life and death-giving goddess Kali. (The film’s story is based both on a real event and on an ancient Indian legend that I am not acquainted with.) The implication is that Muthu will kill but that he will also give life.

The mystical union of opposites is an element of all faiths. While on a moral level, we might expect Muthu to make a choice, on a personal and inner level we all know that choices are constrained by society, family, and tradition. We applaud those who courageously break free of such constraints when facing moral dilemmas. But Gopalakrishnan helps us gain a profound and instinctive understanding of why, most often, we remain bound by the ropes of fate.


More South Jerusalem on film:

Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

The Selfish Monk: Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring”

4 thoughts on “Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill””

  1. “A Western viewer cannot help but ask why Muthu accedes. Why doesn’t he use his position to challenge and change tradition? It is surprising, and disturbing, that we do not even see him consider this possibility.”

    The reason, imo, is in the story the film is named after. The story comes from the Mahabharata and it is about the futility of some punishments.

    Without going into too much detail, in exact parallel to the Mahabharata story, the executioner here (the son) believes that he is making the father feel the remorse/sin/shame that should have accompanied prior executions, and thus punishing him. All the while being blind to his own crime, and blind to the fact that the father is already devastated.

    The film is ultimately a warning that we may be just as blind when it comes to punishments in general, and death penalty in particular. What we believe is just may be completely ridiculous.

    It is interesting to me that you thought it had something to do with tradition or fate. It sort of illustrates to me why there is a huge communication gap even with thoughtful people in the west and half the English-only speaking crowd in India—like here, maybe there is always a “background story” missing?

  2. Thanks much for this comment. I certainly agree that ignorance of each other’s stories is a big problem for communication between cultures. Is the relevant Mahabharata story on line somewhere? Could you provide a link?

  3. The story is popular in Kerala since it forms the basis for several plays. The most famous, called Nizhalkkuthu, was written in 1925 and is part of study material for literature as well as for yakshagana.

    There used to be a pdf file outlining all plays based on this story in the Mahabharata, which I cannot find anymore. However, I am familiar with the version referenced by the movie, which I reproduce here.
    Duryodhana orders a tantrist Malayan to kill Pandavas by black magic. Malayan refuses
    saying that both Pandavas and Kauravas are kings to him. Duryodhana threatens to kill Malayan if he doesnt obey.

    Malayan tries to stall by demanding all sorts of impossible things. He demands that Dussala (Duryodhana’s sister) should be sacri ficed for the ritual, enraging Duryodhana, who refuses to give him anything, and repeats the threat to kill him.

    Malayan goes ahead and kills the Pandavas by stabbing their shadows (which is the literal translation of nizhalkkuthu).

    Malayan is then praised by Duryodhana who
    showers him with gifts. But, Malayan is very despondent since he believes he has sinned because of his choice to kill the Pandavas, even though he had little choice in the matter.

    Seeing him unhappy, his wife asks the reason.
    Malayan tells her that on the way killed 5 deer by nizhalkkutthu. The worried wife further questions him, and Malayan admits that he was forced by Duryodhana to kill the Pandavas by nizhalkkuttu.

    Hearing this, the wife is devastated and enraged. She tells him that she would teach him about Kunti’s (the mother of Pandavas) grief—and kills her own son.

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