Monday, 15 May 2017

A Date With The Hangman

Most actors will agree with me. An actor’s job is not an easy one. It can be tiring and trying. It is, at the best of times fraught with anxiety and insecurity. But it has its advantages. Actors often get to see and experience places and things which others don’t. Take, for instance, capital punishment.

I have had, as an actor, the good or bad fortune of going through capital punishment vicariously.

We were shooting for a film called “Agni Pareeksha” (B. R. Films) many years ago. In the climax of the film the hero had to be hanged (of course, to be saved at the nick of time!!!). For this last sequence, the director had chosen to shoot in the Yervada Prison, Pune, one of the oldest prisons in India.

There were two condemned men, lodged in adjacent cells, in the “death row” when we went for shooting there. I was locked up in one of the unoccupied cells. The place reeked of death.

Dad’s Guru, Stanislavsky, was a firm believer in “realism”. Dad had taught me to create the “magic circle” and to identify myself completely with the character I was portraying. I tried to do so to the best of my ability. It resulted in my breaking into a cold sweat, severe palpitations, a dry mouth and an inordinate amount of gas in my stomach. ‘What must go on in a man’s mind as he awaits extinction?” I was thinking.

After shooting in the ‘death row’ I had to go up a slope that leads to the gallows. My legs began to shake uncontrollably as I walked up the slope. At one stage I almost fell down and the officers had to hold me up. The thought of all those who had gone up this one way street was unnerving. What must have been going on in their minds at that time?

The director was not happy with my performance. “You are the hero of the film! You must be seen going to the gallows with your chest out and head held high, without a trace of fear! As it is, you looked totally fucked up!”
“I am fucked up, Sir! I am trying to be realistic! I am not playing Shaheed Bhagat Singth or Udham Singh, Sir, but an ordinary middle-class man wrongly condemned to death!”
“To hell with “realism” Mr. Sahni! This is a Hindi film! The hero must look like a hero! Come on! Chest out, stomach in!”

I obeyed him till I reached the noose. Then the chest caved in again. I was told that the hangman was not a Junior Artiste but the real thing. The middle-aged fellow was dark, tall, tough, fierce-looking with large, piercing eyes. I was looking at Yama Himself – the God of Death. Before me was a trapdoor and besides it a wooden lever. When one of the light boys ventured close to the lever the officer in charge lost their temper and shouted to him to get back immediately because if the lever was pushed by accident the trap-door would open and I would fall through and kick the bucket within seconds. The chest caved in further.

Before I could say ‘Jack Robinson’ the hangman came forward and tied a thick belt around my waist and arms, another one around my knees and then one around my ankles at the speed of lightening. I felt like a trussed-up turkey ready for the oven. He then picked me up like a piece of light furniture and corrected my position on the trapdoor. Then came the noose around my neck. It was thick and well-greased and stinking. It smelled of sweat. When I asked the hangman why this was so he said: “Perspiration. They perspire a lot when we hang them. And we hanged a fellow just the other day! He sweated a bit.”

Next, a black mask was placed over my head. Everything became dark. The mask was made of soft, black velvet and felt very comfortable. I asked the officer from under the mask if I could take it with me as a souvenir but he informed me that it was not a prop and was in regular use. “We have dispatched a dozen men already in this one” he said. There was no question of sticking my chest out after that. The sweat poured down my face, neck, down into my shirt down my chest onto my belly and threatened to go down further into the nether regions if this shooting went on for much longer.

It was a relief to ‘pack up’ early and leave for the hotel.

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