In Srijit Mukherjee’s blackly funny new film Hemlock Society, a school offers Kolkata’s suicidal formal lessons in self-murder — and judges its success by failure
Meghna, an independent, upper middle-class Kolkata woman, makes up her mind to end her life. So she follows Ananda Kar to his unique school, the Hemlock Society, for a three-day course on the art of suicide. The institute’s tagline is “Morbe moro… chorio na” (“Die if you wish to, but don’t mess it up”), and its faculty takes classroom lessons on conducting a successful suicide. In this morbid place of education, Meghna rediscovers her zest for life, and love.
This unusual plot is from Srijit Mukherjee’s latest film, Hemlock Society, which opened last Friday and is running successfully. Why does its gloomy theme appeal to moviegoers? “Well, it is the dark humour with which the concept of self-killing has been treated,” replies Mukherjee. “[The film] mocks the act of suicide and instills hope and love for life.”
The director won attention for his consecutive hits Autograph (2010) and Baishe Srabon (“22nd of Srabon”, the date of Rabindranath Tagore’s death, released in 2011), both psychological thrillers. Thrillers are safe territory — so why this risky new movie? “I knew I was venturing into an untraversed territory of dark humour,” he says, “that finally churns out into a love story.” There is a personal connection, which he does not elaborate: “Personally, I cannot be objective about the concept of suicide, but I wanted to tell a story that could help people appreciate the beauty of life.”
During post-production on Baishe Srabon, he says, he met a real person who inspired Ananda Kar. Kar is the male lead of Hemlock Society. He owns the suicide school, which does the opposite of what it claims: it helps suicidal aspirants to look at life afresh. (Interestingly, Kar parallels the hero of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 blockbuster Anand, which starred Rajesh Khanna.) While researching his subject, Srijit Mukherjee read about the Hemlock Society, an American right-to-die group of the 1980s, and he got the name for his project.
The research, Mukherjee says, began with euthanasia (often called mercy killing). “There are websites that advise people on how to commit suicide successfully. All I did was to turn those modules into a classroom format to suit the plot of the film.” The modules cover methods including slitting the wrist, taking sleeping pills, shooting oneself and death by hanging. Besides regular practical sessions, Mukherjee’s script had one-on-one sessions where students listen to each other’s technique and find fault with it. This clever satire has kept audiences laughing.
The story revolves round Meghna who has broken up with her fiancé, lost her job and dislikes her stepmother. She goes into depression, and decides to die. “Meghna’s problems had a global appeal,” says the director. “Her problems cross the urban-rural divide, yet her professional setback speaks to young urban professionals.” (Nor is suicide now a rare event. The UN estimates that 3 per cent of Indians aged 15-29 kill themselves. More than half are women.)
Psychological counselor Rupa Talukdar of the NGO Mind’s Eye is happy with the film. She says it eases her work of dissuading suicidal clients and helping them reconnect with life. And the director says that his inbox is inundated with emails from people who have watched Hemlock Society. “It’s touching to hear from people who say that they wish the movie had been made years ago so they wouldn’t have had to part with their loved ones,” he says.
The film was shot in Purple Movie Town, the new film city on the southern fringes of Kolkata. According to the film script, the Hemlock Society’s owner Ananda Kar actually owns the film city and runs his suicide classes on the sidelines of the shooting schedules so as to escape police attention — because in India it is illegal to “abet” suicide.