Gopalakrishnan’s 1981 Elippathayam or The Rat-Trap is a classic example of this. Set in the 1960s, it is his most poetic work. It examines microscopically protagonist Unni (played by Karamana Janardhanan Nair), who fails to respond to the changed times and his surroundings, clinging to a feudal order that had disappeared, but whose vestiges continue to influence lives. Selfish and uncaring, he drives one of his sisters, Sridevi (Jalaja), to elope and another, Rajamma (T. Sarada), to a life of lonely spinsterhood. He turns into a pathetic creature refusing to heed to modernity. Finally, caught between a decadent past and an inhospitable and inconvenient present, he crumbles when Rajamma falls gravely ill. Incapable of facing life, let alone doing even routine chores, he withdraws like a rat into a hole. The rodent that we see caught in a trap is an apt metaphor; Unni’s house and finally the room he shuts himself in are but cages that insulate him from reality.
The first of Adoor’s movies in colour, The Rat-Trap is presented through a series of disturbing images. Rajamma’s deep anguish at such cruel neglect of her by Unni is one. His narcissism, effectively shown in a lengthy shot of him trimming his moustache, is another. Probing human ties in a moribund social structure, the film conveys how Unni turns the feudal master-subject subjugation into another form of regressive suppression -- that over a weak woman, who accepts authority without the slightest of murmur.
Honoured by the British Film Institute in 1982 as “the most original and imaginative work”, The Rat-Trap captures the dying wail of a social order through Mankada Ravi Varma’s wonderful cinematography. A series of close-ups and cutaways goes beyond style to bring us face-to-face with Unni’s rotting world.
In a way, Bhaskara Patelar in Vidheyan or The Servile (1993) is an extension of Unni, only that the former uses power more dramatically and more directly. Here too, Patelar lives in the degenerate feudal past wielding a non-existent authority. With Bhaskara’s Patelar clan divested of revenue and administrative powers after India’s Independence in 1947, he finds a weak, unquestioning Christian migrant, Thommi, to bully and beat into submission. His wife is forced to be Patelar’s sex slave.
Gopalakrishnan has dealt with a variety of subjects, such as unconventional relationship (Swayamvaram or One’s Own Choice, 1972), destabilisation in domestic space (Kodiyettam or The Ascent, 1977), the dynamics of political change (Mukhamukham or Face To Face, 1984) and the guilt of a hangman (Nizhalkkuthu or Shadow Kill, 2002). Yet, there is a common thread running through these. The vision is uniformly personal, and the characters he etches usually find themselves in situations over which they have little control. Viswanathan in One’s Own Choice despite his education is forced to live and die in poverty, and his widow is left with hard choices. Kaliyappan in Shadow Kill is a reluctant executioner, and even Patelar is a victim of circumstance. The characters form part of multi-layered narratives. And these have come from an auteur-director whose passion well into his youth was theatre, not film. Yet, unlike much of Indian cinema, Adoor’s work remains pure cinema. Brilliantly so.
(Sight & Sound, August 8 2008)