Documentary channel

In ‘The Right to Live’, Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s hanging triggers a debate on capital punishment

MS Sathyu’s film questions the state’s right to take a person’s life.

On August 14, 2004, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a security guard in Kolkata, was hanged for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Hetal Parikh. The hanging took place on Chatterjee’s birthday, and was controversial for a number of reasons. Chatterjee was hanged after serving 14 years in jail. The campaign in favour of his execution was waged by Mira, the wife of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister of West Bengal at the time. Legal activists pointed out that Chatterjee had been framed on the basis of an unsatisfactory investigation. According to his hangman, Chatterjee pleaded his innocence until the end.

Before Arindam Sil’s dramatisation of the events in his August 11 release Dhananjoy, filmmaker MS Sathyu had examined the case in the documentary The Right to Live. The 50-minute Public Service Broadcasting Trust documentary questions the rationale behind capital punishment.

Sathyu inserts file footage of his team’s interviews with Chatterjee and his family and juxtaposes their testimonies against the opinions of eminent lawyers on capital punishment. A large portion of the film is dedicated to the debate on whether capital punishment should be abolished in India.

Sathyu was initially denied access to Chatterjee by the West Bengal government for six months. It was only after he approached the Supreme Court that he was finally given permission on the condition that the documentary could not be broadcast before the President addressed Chatterjee’s mercy petition. Sathyu agreed to the condition.

In the film, Sathyu reads out the death sentence as his camera pans across the prison where Chatterjee was housed. His interview with Chatterjee is a trial in itself, but it is Chatterjee’s defence that leaves an impression. “If I’ve committed the crime, hang me. I’ve requested the President to examine me on the lie detector,” Chatterjee says.

Sathyu stages the scenes leading up to the murder to provide a background to the case. The interviews are shot in the traditional television format: a close-up followed by a slow zoom out as the subject begins to speak. Sometimes, it is the exact opposite: a wide shot for a few seconds followed by a gradual zoom-in.

The bits that are the toughest to sit through are the ones featuring Chatterjee’s father, who, having sold many portions of land to pay for lawyers’ fees, is a broken man. “The father felt it was all a police conspiracy to frame the family,” Sathyu explained in an interview to Open magazine. “They relented only after they saw a full-page picture of Dhananjoy looking out from behind bars in a Bengali tabloid and understood that we were only trying to help. They then agreed to an on-camera interview.”

Moving away from Chatterjee’s case, Sathyu widens the scope of the film towards a comprehensive discussion on capital punishment. In his interviews featuring such well-known lawyers and judges as Rajinder Sachar, YM Yusuf, VN Khare and Nitya Ramakrishnan, Sathyu turns over every aspect of capital punishment. There is an explanatory character to the conversations as the speakers address a wide range of topics: the argument of the rarest of rare crimes that guides the administration of capital punishment, the state’s right to take a person’s life, and the idea of good deterrents to harsh crimes.

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