The condemned cell is a small enclosed isolated space in jail where the lights never go off and the sentry does not go to sleep. It is a place where even hardened criminals breakdown as they wait for the eventual black warrant to be issued which will sentence them to the gallows forever. The slow wait for Death’s embrace is more painful than the actual swift action that leads to the final emancipation.
A sturdy man in his early 30s, who betrays no sign of his impending fate, walks into this condemned cell calmly with no sense of fear. Can a man be so devoid of conscience that even after committing multiple murders and standing on the threshold of the Hangman’s noose, he smiles to himself in a self-serving sense of martyrdom?
Sathyanathan (Mohan Lal) is condemned to death for brutally murdering four persons – two adults and two young girls – and is awaiting his final call. He shows no remorse and is just as cheerful as a man who knows he has done no wrong. The prison doctor Dr Nambiar’s (Thilakan) son Vijayan is one of Sathyan’s victims; he wants to sign his death certificate and see the fear in his eyes as he is led up the gallows but the doctor is just as puzzled as to why the crime was committed.
There are appeals in lower courts and petitions for pardons by the cops as a matter of routine but Sathyan has no great interest in living. Eventually, when he wishes to start life again on a fresh slate because he now wants to live, in an O Henry-sque moment, he’s denied a pardon and on Sept 29th, 1991, two years after he is originally convicted of the multiple murders, he is hanged to death. In a series of flashbacks, the story unfolds focussing on Sathyan’s past and recreates the chilling crime scene, explaining his actions.
Sathyan is a ‘bastard’ who is bullied and abused in his childhood by the people around him until he is rescued by a priest (Nedumudi Venu) who realises that the kid is a talented artist. Under the aegis of Father, Sathyan becomes a painter who makes a living by painting sign boards and hoardings. As part of one of his assignments, he takes a rented house in Kozhikode next to a house of ill-virtue where Jaya (Mathu) and her two young sisters live with their aunts. They have no future to look forward to and it is only a matter of time when the aunts get them to carry out the kutumba thozhil.
He helps the kids in their education and gets Jaya a job in the company in which he’s working. Sathyan likes Jaya and wishes to marry her and settle down in life but destiny has other ideas; circumstances force her to end up as a prostitute and there are signs that her sisters will sink in the same quagmire later. In a moment of extreme paranoia, Sathyan kills the two girls in a bid to save them from prostitution and eventually both the guys responsible for her state.
As a product of a broken household, Sathyan is immensely disturbed when he sees the girls headed into a bottomless pit where there is no escape. There is a sense of extreme helplessness and resignation of the fact that despite his efforts to rescue Jaya, he is unable to do so. He seeks his redemption through an act which represents an angst against society for its attitudes towards human trafficking. He does not regret his actions but later on as the movie progresses to a juncture when there are moments of contemplation and solitude, he is unsure about his act.
The multiple-murder scene is a slightly elaborate but extremely chilling piece that has a frightening feel to it. You know that it will culminate in a murder but the thought still does not prepare you for what you see. It is largely shot in close-up and seeks to transform his character into a wild demonic one, as indicated in his painting. The atmosphere is built gradually with tense background music and the usage of dim lights with a red tinge, magnifying the impact of the gruesomeness of the scene. When Minikutty comes running to him escaping from the broker Chandran, it is a moment of déjà vu for Sathyan. He believes that his actions can only delay the inevitable and there is no escape for the kids and that one day or the other, they will be forced into the flesh trade.
It is not a planned murder but is also not something that happens in the heat of the moment. Eliminating just the perpetrators will not help, he reckons, because in some form of the other, they will eventually make their appearance and destroy the lives of the hitherto innocent kids; the society will never allow them to survive with dignity. A sense of moral uprightness coupled with desperation and extreme paranoia drives him to stab them to death.
Pedikka entha niram? Chuvappo atho karuppo? Krithyam niram illa – niram maari kondu irikkum. Pedi kore kazhiyumbol thamasha aavum, thamasha pinne pottichiri, pinne paatu, pinne karchil….
Is a normal human being capable of such an extreme act of violence? There are a couple of scenes that depict Sathyan’s sudden sense of unexplained anger and a scene where Father warns him to stay out of trouble, especially physically – these were possibly written to make us accept such extreme violence from an otherwise soft-spoken man like Sathyan who normally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve.
Most of the film is shot in Kannur Central Jail and there is a general bleakness to the proceedings and MT redeems the atmosphere by bringing a dark sense of humour to the proceedings. There is a detailed discussion on the setup used for the final act, including a demonstration of how it is done – it may have been funny if not for the cruel irony behind it. Recollect the scenes where the cops talk about the quality of rope used for hanging and mentions that it is supplied by a Government company now unlike earlier (nationalisation of the Rope of Death!) or when he says that the lever for hanging needs further oiling to facilitate the hanging smoothly or the police superintendent’s suggestion to take bath in hot water on the day before the hanging because it’s cold early in the morning.
During his last days, the warders ask him to exercise so that he can be in proper shape before the hanging, the jail barber tends to his needs and he is offered proper food and Sathyan remarks how a goat is fattened before it is finally executed. Thankfully, it shies away from creating any unnecessary villain characters in the jail but we are privy to their state of mind as they ponder on the eventual fate that awaits Sathyan on the fateful day. The prisoner scenes with TG Ravi and Sreenivasan tend to border on a sense of pushing the audience towards empathy but that’s just a minor blip.
On another level, the movie also raises questions on the appropriateness of capital punishment and also asks if there is a better way to carry it out (however academic this thought maybe). Waiting everyday with the sword of Damocles hanging around your neck is a painful way to live. It is quite apt in a country like ours where Governments and courts sit for years on judgements and increase the agony of everyone involved in the case.
Sibi Malayil made a name for himself as a director primarily in combination with scenarist A K Lohithadas but Sadayam is penned by MT Vasudevan Nair, who won the National Award for Best Screenplay in 1993 for the movie. It’s a pity that the two worked together only once just as MT and Bharathan had come together for the magnificent Thazhvaram. MTs script is a disturbing exploration of human angst which we experience along with Sathyan and he is ably supported by Johnson’s edgy background music but what propels the movie to a higher cinematic level is the magnificent emotionally charged intense performance that Mohan Lal brings to it.
For the first few minutes of the movie, he speaks very little but the eyes and body language speak a thousand words. Does his smile capture the quiet delight of a man who has committed such a heinous act or is there a repentance of having committed a crime? He largely stays stoic to the events around him and smiles away all attempts by Murali to save him but gradually, there is a desire to live and the first time he betrays his expression is when he breaks down crying hearing of a stay order against his execution. The anger and frustration that he experiences as he realizes the fate of the girls erupts itself in a horrifying multiple murder scene. It is a 10 minute sequence and it showcases a man whose mental faculties have broken down and is in a sense of insane outrage. As the stabs pierce through the children, there is a wry smile followed by an intense laughter at having saved the kids. He repaints his canvas with the knife smeared with their blood and achieves his redemption – was it for his inability to stop the inevitability or against the society for allowing it to happen? It is a performance that has a stomach churning effect which leaves you shell-shocked and disturbingly accept that this was the only way out….
Sadayam isn’t a movie that you can forget quickly. It has a haunting and almost depressing quality that keeps coming back at you again and again….