Vani Subramanian’s documentary The Death Of Us opens with a menacing sequence. A long and thick straw rope twists and turns like a snake before transforming itself into a hangman’s knot. A list of all the different crimes that are punishable by death in India follows, including drug trafficking, dacoity with murder, abetting suicide by minors, kidnapping and sexual offences.

More than 50 crimes are punishable by death in India, Subramanian says, before venturing to ask two crucial questions: Can we be sure the death penalty is making a difference to our society? Or are we, in the name of executing justice, just executing people?

The Death Of Us will be screened at PSBT’s Open Frame festival in New Delhi (September 10-18).

Subramanian, known for her films Meals Ready (1993) and Ayodhya Gatha (2006), argues that it is time to re-examine the law on capital punishment and its ability to deter crime. Over the course of 76 minutes, Subramanian examines six different death penalty cases, including the highly publicised executions of Dhananjoy Chatterjee and Afzal Guru. There are also cases that are relatively less known, such as K Thiagarajan who, at the age of 19, inspired by Naxalism and the idea of the “annihilation” of class enemies, was among those who killed a landlord involved in the Kilvenmani massacre in Tamil Nadu in 1968. In the incident, the employees of upper-caste landlords set fire to the homes of Dalit agricultural labourers who had been carrying out protests for higher wages. Forty-four Dalits died. K Thiagarajan was later acquitted.

Subramanian also meets Chalapathi Rao, who remains in prison on death row for setting a bus on fire in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh during a botched robbery, killing 20 people.

Through these conversations, Subramanian looks at a range of fundamental debates on crime and punishment: what draws the perpetrators to the crimes they have committed; is there something to be said about the caste and class of persons who end up on death row; is there a relationship between social inequality and crime; is death penalty the only solution; could there be an opportunity for reform in case a pardon is granted. Most of all, is it ethical at all for the state to kill?

Crime and the conscience

“The question of the eath penalty has always been complicated for me both as an activist and an individual,” Subramanian told “I won’t say I was born reassured, but I think through understanding cases and campaigns and how the legal system works, one arrives at some clarity about where one stands on the debate. One of my favourite quotes on the subject is by civil rights activist Balagopal, who said that death penalty will always be a difficult discussion because there’s death at both ends of it.”

The title of her film refers to this conundrum. “We are saying you killed somebody, so it should be on your conscience, but my point is if we keep killing people, what are we going to do with our conscience,” Subramanian said.

The filmmaker began work on The Death Of Us in 2013. She noticed a shift in the narrative surrounding the death penalty from 2012, after Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist captured alive in the November 2008 terror attacks, on Mumbai, was hanged. This was followed by two more hangings in a short span of time – Afzal Guru in 2013 followed by Yakub Memon in 2015.

“If you look at the early writings of the 1980s and 1990s, there’s a sense that while it [capital punishment] is not very used in India, we still need to abolish it because it is not the right way to go,” Subramanian said. “But 2012 onwards, that thinking had begun to change. Especially after Nirbhaya, the death penalty became our preferred solution. And we are, mind you, talking about judicial solutions here.”

As part of her research, Subramanian began talking to lawyers and activists. She met Thiagarajan and then fishermen from Rameswaram who had been sentenced to death in Sri Lanka on drug trafficking charges. The five fishermen were eventually pardoned in 2014 by president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Subramanian cited a National Law University Delhi study to point out that usually, it’s the marginalised who are put on death row. “If you look at the NLUD study, you realise the kind of people that are on death row and they are minorities and lower castes,” Subramanian said. “Even if it was someone like Dhananjay [Chatterjee] who was a Brahmin, you also realise that he was extremely poor. So there is a structure to who you’re going to exterminate.”

K Prasath, one of the fishermen in the Rameswaram case. Courtesy PSBT.

Then came the idea of understanding what causes crime in the first place. “Of course, there was a time when many societies had all kinds of cruel punishments and that was considered fine,” Subramanian said. “But as you begin to understand psychology and social inequality and crime itself, you realise that the reasons for crime are structural and not just individual. There was a sense around 20 years ago that we will, slowly, like all civilised countries, disengage from this way of looking at crime and punishment. And that we would instead look at reformative things such as the potential in human beings.”

Subramanian includes the testimonials of prisoners whose sentences were pardoned. “Take Thiagarajan, for instance – he committed a crime when he was 19 and is now accepting his guilt,” she said. “He tells you how, sitting in jail, reading and writing, talking and thinking, changed his mind about society, revolution and change itself. I was struck by the 70-year-old when I met him. You could have killed a man like that but what would you have achieved? As opposed to having him alive and thinking of reform. He even says at the end that he and others like him sat inside jails and converted criminals to social workers. Does that not give you hope?”

The filmmaker also pokes holes in the argument that death penalty serves as a deterrent for harsh crimes. “The problem with looking at death penalty as a solution is to think that it is all bad individuals and therefore you set an example by killing some individuals,” Subramanian said. “That’s problematic at two levels: one is that you don’t understand any structural inequality in the world. The second point is that you are asking the state to do it, and then that means you also don’t have a structural understanding of what state power and state violence can be and how it will finally turn around to attack the weakest.”

The Death Of Us (2018). Courtesy PSBT.

Subramanian does not structure her interviews as a series of talking heads addressing a stationary camera. Instead, Subramanian’s camera looks for visuals that convey what the subjects are saying, their surroundings, and, most importantly, what they feel.

She intersperses her interviews with recitations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, which powerfully capture the idea of being a captive.

“I honestly didn’t know that he [Faiz] was on death row too,” Subramanian said. And there’s another reason why I felt I should include him in the film. When I’m talking about the Rameswaram case for instance and about the torture by Sri Lankan authorities, I’m talking about the death penalty beyond our immediate boundaries. I’m talking about state power in general which is not about specific governments.”

There’s another voice that she includes in the film, one that stands out from the rest: sand artist and sculptor Sudarshan Pattanaik from Odisha. Subramanian films Pattanaik’s sand sculptures while engaging him in a conversation on the effectiveness of the death penalty. Some of Pattanaik’s sand sculptures include the ones on Kasab, Afzal Guru and Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, the sand art itself serves as a metaphor for the ephemerality of life for Subramanian.

“I saw him as a pro-death penalty voice,” Subramanian said. “He represents that mainstream opinion that says, kuch to karo varna tum maroge. But you can see him think through his position in the film. He says he does not want to question the law, but at the same time, also asks how many people will we kill.”

Vani Subramanian.