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--------------- Print Magazine --------------
  May 2016
  April 2016


A Screen Essay on Criminal Rehabilitation

Criminals are not born, but are set on the path of crime by the circumstances, and can, therefore, be reformed and re-absorbed into the society. The reformative theory of punishment is founded on this core belief. Of course, there is no denying the fact that there are certain criminals who cannot be reformed, but those are rare cases of psychological short circuit. Generally, even the 'hardened criminals' can be reformed. It might require greater effort and perseverance, but it is not impossible to reform even the most incorrigible of the lot.

Do Ankhen Barah Haath explored the theme of the reformist approach to punishment and attempted to paint an optimistic picture of the idea that even in the most callous and selfish human hearts there is a humane corner. One needs to just trigger the remedy that lies latent within the criminal in order to make him auto-cleanse himself of his own criminal tendencies.

Released in 1957 and directed by V. Shantaram, who also played the lead role, the movie is considered one of the classics of Indian cinema, and was based on an 'open prison' experiment conducted in Swatantrapur, which was then in Oudh near Satara, and is now part of Atpadi tehsil in Sangli district of Maharashtra.

Adinath, a young jailor, holds staunch reformist views on the criminals. He believes that the heinousness of the crime committed by the prisoner does not reflect his or her true nature. His faith in the intrinsic goodness that resides in all human beings, criminals or not, is unshakeable. In order to prove the validity of his opinion empirically he undertakes an experiment involving six hardcore murderers, who are released on parole on Adinath's responsibility to work and live under his supervision without shackles or walls at a place called Azadpur under the rules to be framed only by Adinath. The challenge is to turn these murderers into men of virtue, and make them realize that there was peace and contentment in earning one's livelihood by the right means and through hard work.

Adinath chooses six murderers for the experiment, which explains the title of the movie. Now, there are two eyes that constantly watch and evaluate what the six pair of hands - twelve in all - manage to do and achieve, or fail to.

Right at the beginning the movie acknowledges that it is not purely a work of fiction, but is based on the real incidents from the real-life attempt of a visionary to reform six prisoners. The viewers are told at the start of the movie through a written text that the "task" of the visionary "was as difficult as of converting a beast into a human being".

True to the initial declaration, the movie is consistently realistic and does not take fantastical flights inspiring unreal hopes. Even in its highly optimistic outlook to criminal reformation, it does not take the extreme position of suggesting that all criminals of all kinds can be reformed and rehabilitated. It is evident right from the start that despite the heinousness of the crimes they have committed, the moral core of each of the prisoners is completely intact. The "task" actually is to make them aware of their own internal goodness. Their perception of the world needs to be connected to their moral core such as to have their actions governed by the fundamental principles of morality. So, morality is not to be inculcated or instilled in them, but only to be prodded back to life, for they already have a moral system in-built.

On their way to Azadpur, their testing ground, they pass through a market where a vegetable vendor is shown purchasing vegetables from a woman at exploitative prices compared to the price he resells them at to the end consumers. While he is bullying the woman into selling the vegetables to him, his servant brings food for him in a lunchbox. Shanker steals the lunchbox and after they have walked for a while and are hungry, he produces the lunchbox. Adinath asks them to not eat the stolen food when they were just beginning to start a clean life and be good men. Except Shanker all others comply though a bit resentfully. Shanker refuses to put the food away, but relents later.

Curiously, none of them contends that to steal from an exploiter of the poor was no theft, which many might consider a natural and effective defense of the Robinhood kind. But they seem to easily understand that it is about their being 'good' rather than others' being 'bad'. They don't have a 'dependent' or 'relative' ethical system, but an independent conception of 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong'. They don't demand parity in wrong, which is quite certainly a virtue considering the fact that the idea of parity is not alien to them, which is unmistakably evident when they demand that their families too must be brought to Azadpur like Kishen's children were brought because Kishen was no different from others, having committed the crime of the same description as others and having been awarded a like sentence.

The toy-vendor woman - Champa - is a regular visitor to the house, and does not feel threatened by the scary convicts at any point of time, for they keep themselves at a respectful distance from her. There are no lecherous passes and no exchange of sleazy glances. Their general goodness gets eclipsed only in the state of intoxication when they get drunk once. The evil in them takes over completely and they not only attempt molesting the woman, but are also about to kill Adinath himself. In the morning, when the sobriety dawns upon them and they are in their right senses, they literally fall at Champa's feet begging forgiveness. The brief dip into their own evilness solidifies their belief in being good and virtuous. Notably, their failure at keeping their promise inspires them to not budge an inch in the face of a violent attack later when Adinath reluctantly allows them to go to the market to sell vegetables on the condition that they would not respond to any provocation of any kind from any quarter.

True to their word, the men don't raise a hand despite the brutal beating they get at the hands of the middleman's hired goons. They are brought back in a heap. And when Champa tells Adinath that his men had kept their word to the last letter and endured the assault without resorting to counter-violence, Adinath is overjoyed. But the middleman is not content at that. He also has the cattle led into the farms maintained by Adinath and his men. Adinath fights a bull so as to prevent it from harming the men lying around unconscious. He is killed by the bull but manages to save his men.

As Adinath embraces death, the final victory arrives when the Jail Superintendent comes with the news that the government had decided to grant pardon to all the prisoners who were part of Adinath's experiment. Adinath's experiment had succeeded though he did not live to see the official acknowledgment of his success, the Superintendent rues. But Adinath needed no acknowledgment because he knew that his experiment had already succeeded beyond doubt. His men had excelled in the final test. The dreaded killers had managed to uphold Gandhian principle of non-violence under extreme conditions. What better proof could there be of the grand success of Adinath's experiment. The prisoners, however, choose to stay on and work there itself instead of going back to their old lives.

However, towards the end the movie throws a surprise when Champa hits her wrists against the wall breaking her glass bangles and wipes the ' bindi ' of her forehead after the death of Adinath, which is a standard ritual performed by a Hindu woman at the death of her husband. Surely, Adinath had not formally married Champa, and there are no indications of any romantic association between the two. The only inference possible is that Champa had unilateral romantic inclinations towards Adinath that remain unexpressed throughout.

Nothing in the movie prepares the viewers for Champa's sudden, unexpected, emotional outburst at the end. Also, it does not add anything to the plot or the philosophy of the narrative. So, it's relevance is hugely questionable. Apart from that, it trivializes the end to a large extent and stands out as a jarring note in the otherwise remarkable symphony, so to speak. The movie could have easily done better without bringing in a romantic angle needlessly.

HemRaj Singh


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