A recent finding reveals that the death sentence in India is skewed against the poor. (Times of India, July 21, 2015). The findings are part of an on-going study conducted by the National Law University students with the help of the Law Commission currently engaged in a wider consultation with different stakeholders on the issue of death penalty and whether it should be abolished. The statistical findings spell out how interviews with 373 death row convicts over a 15-year period, shows that three-fourths of those given the death penalty belonged to backward classes, religious minorities and 75% were from economically weaker sections.

How far is this true? How has Hindi cinema reflected the death sentence in its films? Has it been neutral about delivering the death sentence in democratic manner without bias? Or have films reflected the bias that exists against the poor in real life as the above study – the first one of its kind in the country, bears out? Five films described below will surprise us with the way they reflect the bias that exists within the death sentence in real life.

Mrigaya (1976) was a Hindi film set in a small hamlet in Bengal peopled by an adivasi tribe that barely ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence through hunting. It was based on Shikar, a short story by Oriya writer Bhagbati Charan Panigrahi. But Mrinal Sen said it was a story that could happen at any time, anywhere to anyone. Ghinua, a young Santhal, is a sharp archer and the Saahib or administrator favours him because he is fond of big game hunting. But during a fracas in the hamlet, Ghinua’s wife is kidnapped by the moneylender. Ghinua kills the moneylender and rescues his wife. He then goes to the Saahib because the big game hunt is about to begin. But the Saahib sentences him to death. Ghinua is shocked because the same Saahib rewarded the police informer for killing Sholpu, a revolutionary from among the tribe. Till his death, Ghinua fails to understand why one man is rewarded for committing murder while he is sentenced to death. The Santhals are Dalits, extremely poor and illiterate too. Mithun Chakraborty won the National Award for his performance in this debut film.

Aakrosh (1980) marked the directorial debut of cinematographer Govind Nihalani. Aakrosh is listed among the top 60 films that shaped the Indian film industry spanning six decades. Aakrosh forms a part of the series of works, based around explorations in violence, written by Vijay Tendulkar. Lahanya Bhiku(Om Puri) a tribal arrested for killing is wife Nagi (Smita Patil) though he did not kill her. She was gang-raped by the so-called educated elders of the small town and killed later. They found Bhiku an excellent scapegoat to arrest for a murder he did not commit because he was an untouchable, he was illiterate and he was poor. Though a young lawyer Bhaskar Kulkarni (Naseeruddin Shah) trying his first case appeals to him to tell him his side of the story, Bhiku’s only response is with silence. It is an explosive silence that sends its echoes far and wide till he finally explodes. When he is brought to the crematorium to light his father’s funeral pyre, he picks an axe and chops off his young sister’s head to save her from the same treatment meted out to his wife. He knows that the sentence for two murders will be the same as one. He knows he will be hanged and his last act of rescue is to kill his sister.

Massey Sahib (1985) was directed by Pradip Kishan and the main role was portrayed by Raghubir Yadav. It was an adaptation of Joyce Cary's novel Mister Johnson (1939). Francis Massey works as a clerk in the Deputy Commissioner’s office in a small town in Central India in 1929. Despite his brown colour, his name gives him an attitude and he aspires to be like the colonial rulers. He tries his best to pander to the machinations of his boss Commissioner Charles Adam and indulges in machinations and manipulations of his own of which most are through illegal means and attract the label of corruption. But he is eager to please the big boss and when he is accused of corruption, his boss backs out of helping him. When his wife is taken back by force by her parental family, he requests his friend Banaji to help him fetch her back. But he refuses and he kills him in frustration on the spur of the moment. When he is arrested for Banaji’s murder, Adams advises him to plead guilty to accidental manslaughter. But Massey refuses because he has full faith that Adams will save him in the end. Adams does not and Massey, a convert to Christianity, a poor and semi-educated man who believes he is of high birth by virtue of his name, is sentenced to death. Yadav picked up two international awards for his portrayal in the title role in his debut film.

Many have forgotten Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985) but it is one of the boldest films that seamlessly explored the casteist and capitalist politics in some pockets of rural India like Bihar. Through the unfolding of Damul, the viewer is almost continuously exposed to a series of audiovisual shocks. There is murder in cold blood, there are mass killings of defenseless people, sexual blackmail of a helpless young widow of high caste, the holding of an entire basti to ransom, gheraoing the basti to stop the residents from casting their votes, subjecting them to the mandatory repayment of debts they had never taken, forcing them to steal cattle for the landlord who leaves them to die if and when caught, but not at his doorstep. The final blow comes when Sanjeevana (Annu Kapoor), an innocent Harijan from the Dalit basti is sentenced to be hanged to death because he turned wise to the landlord’s wicked ways. He had not committed any crime. Are these shocks deliberate? Yes they are. Are they incidental to the script? They are that too. They are meant to shock the viewer out of the cool cocoon of the comfort he is watching the film in.

The camera captures the subtle nuances of the facial expressions in close-up, the atmosphere to place the situations in perspective in medium and long shots. The light in the Harijan basti is muted and natural – a glow here, a soft light there, the fiery flames consuming the basti and thereby heightening the credibility of the event or scene. The final shot shows the entire screen covered with a marbling effect coming from the blood-soaked palm of the zamindar, the camera moving in deliberate slow motion. The soundtrack is dotted with the humming of crickets at night and ordinary conversation in the day. The generous use of percussion instruments on the soundtrack, devoid of any song, raises the tension and underlines the drama. The editing is slick without any jerks and jars that the violence could have justified. “Damul” means hanging. Does the title refer to Samjeevana’s death sentence brought about by the political manipulation of the powerful zamindar and his men? Or does Sanjeevana’s death become a metaphor for the death of honesty, innocence, conscience and justice?

Purush (1984) directed by ace cinematographer the late Rajen Kothari, depicts a woman walking up to the gallows quietly, her face immobile and her gait dignified. Adapted by a very successful staged play by Jaywant Dalvi, this film tells the story of Ambika, a young school teacher, the only child of low-middle class parents who rises against the sexual exploitation of women by the powerful politician in general and her own gruesome rape by the same politician by cutting off his vital organ – performing a Bobbit on him. She does not regret her action and takes the death sentence in her stride. Her fiancé ditches her and her mother goes insane but she sticks to her revenge that kills her rapist slowly and more gruesomely than the rape he committed on her. Ambika is a woman, an educated woman belonging to the low middle class who becomes a threat to the upper classes in the same neighbourhood. Her guts is another threat to the men in the neighbourhood who shun her for her courage and her capacity to resist power. When legal pursuits fail, she takes law in her own hands.

Cinema reflects life as these films have shown so far as the bias against Dalits, minorities and the poor are concerned. Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the young security guard who was hanged in Kolkata some years ago for raping and killing a school girl, did not tire of saying, “I would not have been hanged if I was not so poor.” Does that ring a bell somewhere?