Did Dhananjoy Chatterjee deserve to die?

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A film based on Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was hanged to death for raping and murdering a young girl, questions the very basis of his conviction. It also questions the validity of capital punishment in a democratic society, says Shoma A. Chatterji.

Who is Dhananjoy Chatterjee? Few remember him today as the young man sentenced to death by hanging on August 15, 2004, for raping and murdering 14-year-old Hetal Parekh when she came back from school and was at home alone. Dhananjoy was the security guard in the building. He was sentenced and placed behind bars for 14 years, and then sentenced to death. Presidential clemency did not come and finally, despite his insistence that he had neither raped nor killed the girl, Dhananjoy was hanged.

To relive our memories of this tragic event in the history of the death sentence in India prior to the Nirbhaya case, noted filmmaker Arindam Sil has made a fictional film called Dhananjoy that will release on August 15 across the country. Says Arindam, “We are not drawing any definite conclusions or making any arbitrary statements about Dhananjoy being guilty or not being guilty of the crime. We are not questioning the execution also. We are only raising questions around whether the death sentence in his case was justified as it was solely on the basis of pure circumstantial evidence. We are asking the audience to arrive at their personal verdict about Dhananjoy’s involvement in the crime, after watching this film.”

Only circumstantial evidence
“In the history of the death sentence in India, this is the first death sentence of a civilian citizen carried out without a single shred of physical evidence and on circumstantial evidence alone, and that too, after the man had already served 14 years of rigorous imprisonment. That is what this film Dhananjoy seeks to do. On the basis of our research for this film, we have concluded that Dhananjoy’s death sentence was premised on the massive media outcry, so it was possibly a media-created trial that sentenced him to death,” says the director Sil.

He is right. Studies have shown that many executions in India have been consequent to; (a) massive public outcry against crimes and murders committed in cold blood, and (b) wide and continuous media coverage highlighting the crimes. The executions of Pheroze Rustom Daruwala, the four hired killers in the Manwat murders, Billa and Ranga, and the four killers of the Joshi and Abhyankar families of Pune, are cases in point. Daruwala was denied presidential clemency. He was executed on December 31, 1975. The death sentence of the Manwat murderers of 11 little girls in a series of ritual killings was carried out in September 1979. Interestingly, the actual culprits were let off scot-free ‘for want of evidence.’ In actuality, it was because of the political clout Uttamrao Barhate and his mistress Rukmani commanded in the area. Billa and Ranga were caught and hanged for the senseless murders of Geeta and Sanjay Chopra in Delhi. On October 1983, Rajendra Jakkal, Dilip Sutar, Shantaram Jagtap and Munawar Shah were executed for planning and executing the murders of the Abhyankar and Joshi families.

Director Arindam Sil, who has helmed the movie

Director Arindam Sil, who has helmed the movie

Coming back to the film Dhananjoy, it came about when Arindam Sil was sent a book based on research on the entire case done by Paramesh Goswami, a social activist, and Debashish Sengupta and Probal Mukherjee, who are professors at the Indian Statistical Institute. The book was titled The Court, Media, Society and Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s Death Sentence, by another filmmaker Atanu Ghosh. Ghosh suggested that Sil make a film based on this new perspective the research offered about Dhananjoy’s involvement in the crime and his subsequent sentence and execution, and “added our own research that ran into 5,000 pages of findings and data and trial notes. Then I asked my scriptwriter Padmanabha Dasgupta to create a script out of these findings. But he also needed to be convinced,” says Arindam.

Though the entire unit visited the suburbs where Dhananjoy lived and grew up, the sets for the film were recreated within the studios. “We met a lot of people within his family and in the neighbourhood where he lived, and it was a terrible, emotionally draining experience. We could neither eat nor sleep after staying there and interacting with his family for some days. His family, already poor, was reduced to the last dredges of penury and was barely breathing, and we cannot call that being alive.” Filmmaker M.S. Sathyu made an outstanding documentary Right to Live on the death sentence using the Dhananjoy Chatterjee case as a frame of reference. The film questions the validity of capital punishment in a democratic and civilised state. “At that time, he had interviewed both Dhananjoy and his father, and we have recreated that entire interview in this film,” informs Arindam Sil.

Till the last moment, Dhananjoy cried out that he was innocent. He also told his brother not to grieve for him, because he would definitely come back. “I am innocent. I have not done anything. Please have faith in the fact that I will come back,” he said repeatedly to his brother and other members of his family who came to visit him. The body of Dhananjoy was not handed over to his family following the execution. Why? Perhaps the law and order machinery wished to block any possibility of a post-mortem after the fact, who knows? He was asked to sign on a blank sheet of paper by the police in charge and he did it. Why?

Who is the actor who has fleshed out the very challenging character of Dhananjoy in the film? His name is Anirban Bhattacharya who comes from theatre and has already proved his mettle as an actor in a few films recently. He says, “This is the most challenging character I have portrayed in my entire career on stage or screen. It is a character that does not have any frame of reference to fall back on. Dhananjoy’s experience is something very difficult to internalise and portray. It was so emotionally draining for me that at times, I felt that I just could not take it anymore. I never met Dhananjoy, so I just had to visualise and realise the character on the basis of my perceptions of the man I got from my director, the script and Dhananjoy’s family in Chhatna village, which I visited many times. Besides, I had to create the body language, the dialect he used in his speech, which was truly quite difficult. I will now wait for the audience to judge my performance just as they are being invited to sit on judgment whether the death sentence was right or wrong.”


shoma

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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