Hangman’s minute of glory

IN Media Practice | 21/01/2005
National award-winning filmmaker Joshy Joseph questions the media’s tendency to sensationalize in his film ‘A Day from the Life of a Hangman’
 

Rina Mukherji

 

Opinion polls on any and every issue, unlikely heroes out of ordinary men and insensitive media voyeurism have been the call of the day ever since technology has equipped the media with hitherto unattainable and unimaginable tools of the trade.

 

National award-winning film-maker Joshy Joseph questions all this and more in his film, ‘A Day from the Life of a Hangman,’ which recently previewed at the Chhobi Mela III in Dhaka.

 

The hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee was an event in more ways than one. It was the return of capital punishment in independent India after a long interregnum. It brought to the fore many issues — child abuse and rape, the problem of insecurity in high-rise apartments and lonely children in nuclear families.

 

Since the convict was not accessible, the media zeroed in on the executioner, Nata Mullick. It got to pursue him relentlessly, making an unlikely hero out of him. A true media darling, Nata Mullick turned out to be an actor par excellence giving them the kind of quotes they were looking for.

 

Public outrage at the rape and abuse of a 14-year-old schoolgirl, whose life was abruptly cut short, was fully exploited by Nata Mullick in suggesting the need for the execution, even as he projected the image of a Kali-worshipping, God fearing man, only doing his duty in eliminating wrongdoers for the greater social good.

 

The film especially dwells on Nata Mullick demonstrating the dreadful knot he uses for final elimination of the condemned convicts. Joshy Joseph’s disgust is visible in the shots, which show how the print and television journalists actually reveled in the "success" achieved by getting a scoop from the man. "It reminded me of the public execution that doubled up as a gruesome kind of entertainment in Europe during the Middle Ages."

 

Interestingly, it must be noted here that the media build-up was so staggering that the nondescript elderly Nata Mullick became an icon and was soon inaugurating blood donation camps and the like. To the extent that he actually expressed political aspirations — something that was nipped in the bud by a total ban on public appearances by the authorities and CPM bigwigs.

 

Meanwhile, as the debate on whether to kill or not to kill took on the shape of   "a theatre of the absurd" (to quote Joseph), the hangman seized the opportunity to successfully bargain for a job for his grandson.

 

The period also saw him demand higher and higher amount of money from the media, and actually get it. "He now went beyond the initial amount of Rs 2000 for a two-day shoot he had agreed upon, and started asking for Rs 1000 per shot," Joseph reveals.

 

But as the calls for clemency gained momentum and the film looked beyond the scheduled June 24-25, 2004 execution, it provided Joshy Joseph a closer look at the inner world of the hangman.

 

A stay on the execution would mean denial of all that Nata Mullick had bargained for. The man feared this loss and hence the postponement saw him slowly disintegrating. It also accounted for his foul temper and reluctance to face the film-maker’s camera.  The film has some tedious, repetitive shots of the hangman here, but then it also captures the inner world and frustration of a media darling suddenly going to seed.

 

The raging opinion polls, the anti and pro-clemency debates, the petition to the President, the Chief Minister and his wife pushing forth the demand for Dhananjoy’s execution with the media contributing in full measure to the ringside circus is projected well in the film.

 

In fact, as Joseph points out, the ding-dong attitude of the media, which reported the matter in the manner of a daily soap opera or better still, a reality show, even swung the sympathy wave in favour of Dhananjoy.

 

When the final execution took place, Nata Mullick had swooned after accomplishing the task. The ambulance that took him to the hospital proceeded thereon to the Star News office, a detail Joshy Joseph takes pains to highlight. Nata Mullick was paid Rs 10,000 for the hanging, but earned Rs 20,000 from Star (in addition to what he got from other channels) for a blow-by -blow account of the execution after having accomplished the deed.

 

"The media hanging was far more lucrative than the actual event. That is exactly where I have a problem," says Joseph.

 

In fact, the film from the very first shot to the last is similar to the French Theatre of the Absurd, with no beginning and end. In documenting the life of Nata Mullick as it proceeds through the day, Joseph leaves the tale hanging, with questions each of us must ask ourselves. It is a reality show indeed, and a grotesque one at that.

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