Crime Tak’s interview with Pawan ‘Jallad’ had all the makings of morbidity porn
Opinion

Crime Tak’s interview with Pawan ‘Jallad’ had all the makings of morbidity porn

For about 30 minutes, anchor Shams Tahir Khan interviewed the hangman who executed the convicts in the December 16 gangrape case. What made it a viral hit?

By Anand Vardhan

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From 1922 to 1927, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, was an Imperial Police Service officer in Burma (now Myanmar). During this period, he witnessed a hanging that he narrated in an essay titled A Hanging. It was published in 1931 in Adelphi, a British literary magazine.

There is a moment in Orwell’s narration when the convict stops to avoid a puddle while he is being forced to walk to the gallows.

And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path…. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

Orwell wrote in an effort to humanise the last moments of a life walking into a law-ordained but sudden end.

To recollect this precise moment on the morning of March 20 — when four convicts in the December 16 gangrape case were being taken for hanging — Pawan “Jallad” himself became the chronicler on Crime Tak, the crime-focused wing of Hindi news channel Aaj Tak (India Today group).

After perhaps being a tad disappointed by hangman Pawan’s reply that he wore the usual trousers and shirt for the act of hanging, the interviewer and crime show host Shams Tahir Khan asks him: “Woh kaise aa rahe the? Zara vistaar se batayea. (How were they approaching? Tell us in detail.) The hangman’s short reply that they were nervous was certainly not enough, as Khan prods him to add that their limbs were shaking. Pawan’s revelation that he couldn’t tell whether they were crying since their faces were covered is yet another dampener for Khan. Moving on, his revelation that they weren’t exerting physical force to extricate themselves leaves the host inquiring “why”. The hangman, obviously, was as clueless about such psychic tasks as anyone could be.

The interview — which lasted for 30 minutes — may go on to become a case study for media sociologists who’d like to identify patterns of news consumer behaviour. It received more than 15 million views on YouTube within a short span on time and was on the trending list. One could safely assume that the show received good viewership on TV too — a shorter version of it was available on Aaj Tak. However, it would be lazy to explain the motives of the interview to mere TRP or views-chasing race — both are reasonable aims for news media players with a skin in the game.

The high viewership can also be attributed to the interview’s comic value given the unusual questions that Khan asked of Pawan “Jallad” — how was the rope tied? How did you loop the rope?

That, however, may have a very minor role to play in making it a viral sensation, so to speak. Even the argument about crime shows doing well is only a partial explanation of the huge viewership of these interviews. Six months ago, long before the hanging, a far less dramatic interview with the same hangman, by the same interviewer and on the same channel had garnered more than 9 million hits. The popular reception tells us something.

First, the questions posed to the hangman had the makings of morbidity porn. It was almost the unmasking of a voyeuristic society that was trying to peep into the scene and a set of last human responses to the dread of a scripted death — the last moment, which unlike other living beings, the convicts are informed of well in advance.

The interviewer had questions ranging from the body movements of the convicts once the lever was pulled and they went beneath to their reactions when their limbs were tied up. In fact, the precise moment of getting the signal from the jailor for pulling the lever was actually demonstrated in the interview. Pawan stood up, took out a pink handkerchief and dropped it for the viewers to get a sense of how it played out. In the process, he helpfully informed the viewers that the actual handkerchief used on the fateful day was red in colour.

Khan also dug details on a number of minute processes and paraphernalia related to the hanging — including the trials done prior to actual hanging, the pairs of convicts placed on each execution plank and how the actual knots were made.

However, the key element that goes on to qualify the interview as morbidity porn is that it follows the sequence of the slow walk to sudden death. The questions weren’t random, but probed the details of the little processes culminating in that deadly pulling of the lever. It went even a step further, Khan asked the hangman about how much time the hanged men struggled for before everything stopped, that is when they actually died. That’s a chronology on which morbid voyeurism works.

Second, the interview at different points also turned the well-meaning exercise of humanising the hangman into a coaching manual of skills and temperament of future hangmen, and sought a slice of glory for those willing to perform the last act in a society’s punitive code against heinous crime. In some ways, he was portrayed as the face of our retributive accomplishment as society. The interest in a third generation hangman like Pawan — his father and grandfather also carried out state hangings — is understandable, and so was the need to fight ostracism to which they are sometimes subjected. This was supplemented by an appeal to viewers to financially assist him.

The hangman, soaking in the media attention, exuded a satisfaction in carrying out what he thought was his social duty. He displayed an unusual sense of pride, sometimes tinged with boastful talk. And he was keen on expressing vindication against those who doubted his ability to execute four convicts at one go and that too seamlessly.

However, along with morbidity porn, what earned him so many takers was the quaint nature of his profession as much as him being the last agency for satisfying the “collective conscience”.

The cliché goes that there were always unexplored aspects to a tale; the hangman’s account could be one of the ways to uncover one of them. However, more than narrative utility, the interview’s motives and popularity were rooted in a blend of voyeuristic sequencing of a frightened man’s encounter with death and a society’s retributive denouement to a tale of crime. Crime Tak interview had that blend.

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