SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 16 JUNE, 2017
One Day In the Life Of a Hangman
KOLKATA: Filmmakers across the world very often dip into literature as the source for their films. Has one ever heard of a documentary film taking the form of a book and that too, a film that had raised the hackles of the Government of West Bengal (under the CPI(M) then) so much that it stopped the film’s screening two days after it was released? The 83-minute film, One Day in the Life of a Hangman was directed by Joshy Joseph and produced by Drik India, a photographic NGO with its base in Bangladesh.
Joshy made the film in 2004 and it was released at Nandan in 2005. The execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee by perhaps the last hangman of Kolkata, Nata Mullick, decided the trigger for the film. “I was motivated to make this film because of the strong media focus on the hangman, 85-year-old Nata Mullick. The incident had created the kind of anticipation that attended public executions in medieval Europe. Though this film, my aim was to de-fictionalise the non-fiction by retreating into the dingy, cell-like room of the old hangman for one whole day before the hanging,” says Joseph, the day Alipore Central Jail allowed media access to Mullick.
“Bless me, O Lord! Forgive me for what I am going to do. May the one who dies at my hands find peace….” These were the words of Nata Mullick, as he waited to hang Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a rape and murder convict, at Alipore Central Jail in West Bengal on June 24, the day on film.
Is it a voyeuristic exercise to zero in on the private life of a hangman who is already bearing the burden of having to hang a death-row convict the following day? Yes, it is and that is also what Joseph wished to convey through the film. He appears in the film several times, trying to find out where the old man is hiding when his grandson tries to rescue him from the media.
“The film is not only about Nata Mullick but also a scathing critique of the media of which I am an indispensable part,” says Joseph, adding. “That is what I wanted to show and archive.” There is a sense of malicious enjoyment we derive from the tragedy and pain of others. The film spells this out without too many words but only through visuals capturing live events candidly and frankly on camera.
The media almost literally pounced on this old man to get his sound bytes and, trying to make the best of this only opportunity, the doddering old Mullick charged around Rs.1000 for a one-minute byte to television channels waiting for their minute of sensationalising not only the death by hanging of a convict but also focussing on the man who would be hanging him. The film shows him asking for booze from each reporter according to his/her audio-visual requirements. The film made a deep impact on some intellectuals who decided to write two books inspired by this film.
Early this month, a milestone was laid when the Malayalam narration of the film was published in the form of a book in Kolkata. Earlier, the film inspired K R Meera to write her highly-successful novel Aarachar (Hangwoman) in Malayalam. But that is just half the story.
Another book has been authored by Banesh, a Malayalam writer who wrote an impressionistic narration intercut with his personal views after having watched One Day in the Life of a Hangman. Writer N S Madhavan, who wrote the foreword to the book, said he experienced a similar feeling while reading the Czech novel The Hangwoman, written in the 1970s by Pavel Kohout.
But to bring to life the body language and silence of the hangman in a book is a difficult task, according to Joshy, who said the authorship of the book should go to Banesh. “You read it along with Aarachar, and you will get a new experience that is visual and literary at the same time,” says Joshy.
The coverage by the media till this one day before the original hanging was scheduled and then postponed was fiction created by the media as it was not allowed direct or indirect access to Alipore Central Jail and to Mullick before then. Most of the reports, analyses, coverage were clever, diabolic and sometimes brazen inventions “For a couple of months prior to the hanging, newspapers and news channels were more thrilling than any crime thriller. The debate on capital punishment was lying on it like Gandhiji’s dead body, that was accompanied by rifles at both sides at his last journey,” says Joshy.
The film did not have a prepared screenplay and was shot ex-tempore because Nata Mullick was not used to the media in general and the movie camera in particular and also because the film had to narrate everything spontaneously. Yet, M.S, Banesh wrote his own text based on the film and got it published in Malayalam. It is titled Aaracharude Jeevithathil Ninnu Oru Divasam which is the Malayalam translation of the English title of the film. It is more like the retelling of the narrative that creates a completely new genre in writing where the book follows the film instead of it being the other way round. It was commissioned to Banesh because Joshy, also a very good writer, desisted from writing a film after he had already made it.
''In the film, I have tried to capture the two extremes within a span of a single day. On the one hand, was the focus on the craziness of the media and on the other, it focussed on perhaps the last hangman in Kolkata who, not happy about this last job, was practical enough to make hay while the sun shone. The film eventually becomes a critique on the media. I have tried to bring that out in the film,'' says Joshy, adding, “The film's narrative is that of fiction and not a conventional documentary through the characters are real.”
When most of Kolkata’s intellectuals remained silent when the then-government stopped the screening of the film at Nandan, Mahasweta Devi’s was the sole dissenting voice. In a letter to DRIK-India, she wrote, “I saw (the film) and was impressed. The treatment is entirely objective. No judgmental attitude towards other questions like whether death by hanging should or shouldn't be there.
No moral attitude from the filmmaker. No questions about the morality of a death sentence. It is a bare and savage documentation of a day in a hangman's life. Of course, the hangman is deeply concerned as one Dhananjoy every five years means bread and butter for him, but somewhere he also understands. This film actually points towards the reality, which is today in every viewers' life.”
“I use my cinema as a democratic space where my subject and I are placed on the same platform as equals. Otherwise, it would be difficult for me to make the kind of film I was seeking to make. I prefer to position myself along and behind the camera instead of inhibiting my subject by bogging him/her down with my camera,” says Joshy. But with A Day in the Life of a Hangman, things were really different as time has proved.