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DVD cover
Directed byAdoor Gopalakrishnan
Written byAdoor Gopalakrishnan
Produced byAdoor Gopalakrishnan
Joël Farges
StarringOduvil Unnikrishnan
CinematographyMankada Ravi Varma
Sunny Joseph
Edited byB. Ajithkumar
Music byIlayaraaja
Distributed byAdoor Gopalakrishnan Productions
Artcam International
Les Films du Paradoxe
Release date
  • 7 September 2002 (2002-09-07)
Running time
90 minutes

Nizhalkuthu (English: Shadow Kill, French: Le Serviteur de Kali) is a 2002 Indian film in Malayalam directed, written and co-produced by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The film explores the recesses of the human consciousness. It stars Oduvil Unnikrishnan in the lead with actors Narain, Murali, Sukumari, Reeja, Nedumudi Venu, Vijayaraghavan, Jagathi Sreekumar and Tara Kalyan in supporting roles. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti section and received critical acclaim. The film was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at the festival.


The title of the film Nizhalkuthu (Shadow Kill) refers to a popular play Nizhalkuthu Attakatha, adapted from the Mahabharata, about the inherent unjustness of certain punishments. In the play, the Kauravas force a witch hunter to kill the Pandavas by stabbing their shadows. However, the witch hunter's wife finds this out and is enraged. To punish her husband by making him feel what Kunti, the mother of Pandavas must feel, she kills their child in the same way.

The film reflects that death penalty is probably in the same vein. We may---like the witch hunter's wife---be handing out punishments that are equally ridiculous under the false perception that we are doing justice, if not being directly criminal like the witch hunter.

Adoor's usual cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma filmed half of the project. But he was later replaced by Sunny Joseph, since the former fell ill and was later found to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.[1][2]


The plot is set in the 1940s in a village of Travancore, British India. Kaliyappan, the last hangman of Travancore is dragging his remaining life by consuming alcohol and worshipping the Mother Goddess. The reason for this self-destruction is the remorse born out of the feeling that the last man he hanged was innocent.

While pulling on his life by boozing, worshiping the Goddess and treating ailing people with the ash obtained by burning the hanging rope, one day the King's messenger once again arrives with the King's order of appointing him for executing a convict termed as 'a killer, proved beyond doubt'. He leaves for the jail with his Gandhian, freedom fighter son to assist him in his job.

As a tradition, the hangman has to spend the eve of the execution awake. When alcohol fails to keep Kaliyappan awake, the jailer starts telling a 'spicy tale' to keep him awake, the tale of a 13-year-old girl raped and killed by her own brother-in-law and an innocent musician boy convicted for this charge.

When Kaliyappan discovers that the condemned person he is about to hang is the musician boy, he breaks down. The job of executing the convict is passed on to his assistant, his son. The Gandhian, freedom fighter son completes the job. His motivations are not spelt out, but the choice of title hints that the son perhaps punishes the father by reminding him that any of his prior executions may have been a farce just like this.

Just like the witch hunter's wife in Mahabharata, the son's sense of punishment completely ignores the innocent victim who would be executed. We are reminded that what we think of something as just may not always be so.



Sound Recording: N. Harikumar[3]

Sound Editing: V. P. Krishnakumar, N. Harikumar, Dominique Vieillard[4][5]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received critical praise. Richard Phillips of World Socialist Web Site said, "Shadow Kill provides an accurate and disturbing glimpse of the state apparatus created by the British colonial rulers and their local Indian agents and the treatment of those at the bottom of the pecking order. It is a dark and disturbing film with strong performances by its experienced cast. Oduvil Unnikrishnan as Kaliyappan is particularly noteworthy."[6]

Laura and Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews rated the film C+ and said, "While beautiful to look at, the film is slow moving and oddly sadistic."[7]

Gautaman Bhaskaran of The Hindu stated, "Adoor Gopalakrishnan's latest celluloid creation is a profound statement on capital punishment. At the core is the human emotion of guilt which tests and tortures the hangman and gives the picture a poignantly novel angle."[8]

The reviewer of concluded, "Nizhalkuthu, in the final analysis, comes across as a masterwork; a film that seeps in through the eyes and envelops the mind and doesn't let go".[9]


National Film Awards
Kerala State Film Awards


  1. ^ "Painting with light". The Hindu. 7 September 2007. Archived from the original on 3 December 2007.
  2. ^ "Indian cinematographer Varma dies: He worked on Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films". Variety. 24 November 2010.
  3. ^ "Global Film Initiative: Film Catalogue: Shadow Kill". Retrieved 21 August 2016.
  4. ^ Boniv V (10 July 2015), Nizhalkkuthu, retrieved 21 August 2016{{citation}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ "Global Film Initiative: Film Catalogue: Shadow Kill". Retrieved 21 August 2016.
  6. ^ Richard Phillips (7 August 2003). "Two perceptive Indian films". World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  7. ^ Laura, Robin Clifford. "Nizhalkkuthu ("Shadow Kill") (In competition, Upstream) India". Reeling Reviews. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  8. ^ Gautaman Bhaskaran (14 February 2003). "And thereby hangs a humane tale..." The Hindu. Archived from the original on 6 October 2003. Retrieved 9 April 2011.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  9. ^ "Nizhalkuthu is a masterwork". 6 May 2003. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  10. ^ "John Abraham Awards for Best Malayalam Cinema - Looking Back". Federation of Film Societies of India (Kerala). Retrieved 27 January 2023.

External links[edit]