India / 1982 / Malayalam

Directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan

With Sharada, Karamana Janardanan Nair, Jalaja

Still from 'Rat-Trap'Unni is a middle-aged man living in a sprawling family house, which he inhabits like a heap of decimated, old wealth. He is unmarried, but has his sister Rajamma to look after him in lieu of a wife. Past marriageable age, Rajamma is usually absorbed in the daily tasks of caring for Unni and their younger sister Sridevi. Meanwhile Unni seems content to wile away his days on his front porch, to go to his temple regularly, and  to repel any visitors to his house with withering remarks and a stony gaze. Laborers march through the property with heavy loads on their heads and he pays them no mind; the tapioca and coconut crops could be going to seed and he would not care. The palms could be burning and he would not glance away from his newspaper.When a cow invades their yard, or when a communication needs to be made with the groundskeeper, Unni calls out to Rajamma like a child, and she unfailingly complies.

The opening credits show the architectural eminences and corners of an old, stone temple. The setting then moves to the family home, another temple of sorts, its beautiful and ornate wooden beams and rafters swathed in cobwebs. We first see the three siblings when the night is cut by Unni crying out in his sleep, and together they pursue the offending rat through the darkened house by a circle of lantern-light. Their clambering chase makes them look as though they are scurrying through a maze or the rodent passages that lie within the walls. In the scale gradation that begins from the temple and goes to the house, we continue on to a smaller structure: the old, unwieldy rat trap that Sridevi pulls from the dusty attic. As the house resembles a temple, so too does the trap resemble a house, with bars, so that whatever poor rodent who gets stuck in it has its panicked futility displayed. The trap is soon earning its keep, providing new captives whom Sridevi transports, like a condemned criminal’s march, to a stepwell outside to be drowned.

The pests’ captures cause more disturbance than their mere presence ever does; when the trap closes on them it flips itself over with a loud crash. Rajamma shares the most in common with them, fate sealed in a cobwebbed and antiquated mechanism, the distance between her and death only as long as her jailers walk to take her there. Her brother, too, is just as destined for the stepwell as she, but he delays, trying to ignore the passage of time and virtually all that goes on around him. Thieves steal from his trees, a creditor hurls abuse at him, and a poor woman who works on his land tries unashamedly to attract him. But none of this even manages to illicit a reaction from the man, cantankerous and demanding as he is on the grounds of his rotting family estate. There is something haunted, traumatized, in his fastidiousness his powerful disengagement shot through with untold anxiety. He is so removed from physical sensations that he is left only to dream them – a rat’s bite, a heavy object falling down on him.

Still from 'Rat-Trap'Sridevi, meanwhile is still very much connected with the outside world, goes to school, notices men. Since the film is so focused in the region of the house, we only have clues as to what is going on in her life. She isn’t at all disposed to domestic tasks and, by the arbitrariness of birth order, doesn’t have any reason to be, at least until she is married off. Unni is unwilling to let go of Rajamma, probably because she is so dutiful, and thus able to provide the mooring that allows things to continue as they are, to complacently stay the same. So devoted is he to keeping things the same that he cannot acknowledge what is going on when it all falls away in a slow crash and burn around his ears.

The flashlight that guides him between home and temple at night and the umbrella that keeps his skin from getting darkened by the burning sun: these are the objects dearest to Unni, more for what they represent than for the functions they perform, baubles that make him feel secure in his social class. One imagines him basking in untold wealth, but it simply isn’t there. Part of a calcified elite, he is reduced to stashing money underneath his pillow, which his lazy nephew instinctively knows to reach under when the man is out of the house. The young man’s mother, Unni’s elder sister Janamma, comes to the house for an extended stay. She seems the only one who has freed herself from the remaining family and had a proper life on her own. Clearly she hasn’t returned just for the glowing company of her siblings; the calculating woman is intent on getting her share of the family property, and her presence is the first concrete sign of its dissolution.

“The porch is for guests,” Rajamma’s uncle muses, after dropping by unannounced to relay a marriage offer for her. Indeed, the ingenious layout of the house offers a relaxed and open exterior for the public life of the men, while it also immures the trapped existence of the women within. Unni shuns the marriage offer, powerfully wielding a hand in her future and freedom, while on the outside his response looks like basic pickiness. If she is dissatisfied, one wonders, why does she not leave? Because she is safe there, or so she has convinced herself.

Their elder sister warns Unni that he cannot maintain life as it is. Her attempts to ingratiate herself with him (one gets the feeling this is not the first such campaign of hers) meet with no response, and so she dumps civility in order to get her share of the family property. Unni clings to the property, to his power over people and land, simply because it is something to cling to. He hardly reaps any benefits from his position, and clearly doesn’t enjoy them. Even beyond the point of strangling others with his hegemony, he holds onto it, without meaning, ambition, or profit. Perhaps the responsibilities paralyze him – but if so, one would expect a higher quotient of desperation in the ways he responds to them.

Still from 'Rat-Trap'Rajamma is just as opposed to change as her brother is. But that obstinacy makes them akin to the shabby house; unchanging and even venerable on the outside, but atrophied within. They are both gnawed from the guts outward, something that is literally so in her case after she becomes bedridden with stomach pains. Seeing that Rajamma can no longer do the housework, Janamma tries to pass the job off to Sridevi, who uses her schoolwork as an excuse not to. No one will take even small responsibilities, so Unni must settle for a cold bath and stones still in his rice. Are the effects of exterior change what are ailing Rajamma, or is it only the pressure of her pent-up anxieties? It seems as though both are acting in concert, producing the pain in her tightly-bundled core. It is the scared, imprisoned little animal within her that is rebelling, crying out. She is a woman whose inner life has wasted away in the service of others, squared on every level by enclosures – the kitchen, the courtyard, the world. Her brother, on the other hand, is so self-absorbed as to appear a total blank. He is the opposite: all interior, to the point where nothing remains on the outside, like a house with no windows, chimney, or door.

While debt and landlessness have been such a salient way of life for so many people in Kerala for so many centuries (dented, but surprisingly not cleared away, in recent years by successive Marxist state governments), one takes it for granted that the root of these institutions lies in greedy, aggressive capitalists who do all they can to keep workers indentured. Instead we have people just as blandly resigned to the system as a worker too worn-down to disagree. The director is not describing the inequality from the epicenter of the outrage, like the decidedly more outspoken John Abraham so often chose to, but from the big house itself, and what a lonely place it is. Director Gopalakrishnan’s image of these zamindars, these landlords, is one of profound indifference, which is bred by privilege, indifference itself a grim and joyless celebration of the privileges one has been afforded.

Gopalakrishnan cannily sets up the central metaphor at the beginning and is careful not to overburden it, allowing for the parallels within the narrative to seep in slowly. It returns mainly in intimations. The foley sound of the trap being set – this is a detail that the director points out in a 2008 interview – is the same sound as the ancient, heavy doors of the house creaking shut. A succession of rats get trapped but it may as well be the same one getting reincarnated over and over; they continue unabated, becoming more irritating to the members of the household as the film progresses. The situation of the characters is familiar, if greatly exaggerated. The director’s talents come in with taking apart the mold that is set up, pulling apart the characters who, even in their varieties of petrified inflexibility, are fated to rupture.

Frames are filled liberally with sodden gray from the house’s walls, as well as the encompassing, almost fungal darkness of the night. The verdant setting provides a menacingly flat, green dam, against which the different characters’ color auras flare, notably Sridevi’s sanguine crimsons and Rajamma’s pale blues of resignation. The camera at times takes a rat’s-eye-view, mapping the rhythms of people’s feet as they cross the thresholds of the place. On the soundtrack are stagnant washes of strings punctuated by metallic scrapes, distinctly unmusical as the director desired, the sound of gravity pulling things down to stasis. Behind the violins is a droning tambor, but instead of keeping things afloat in consonance, each of its notes diverge at different levels, hanging on in uncertain isolation.

Still from 'Rat-Trap'It is a shame that Gopalakrishnan’s work has, of late, been somewhat unfairly relegated to the steady drip of middlebrow narratives that comprise the bulk of recognized world cinema today (in his case, represented by 2002’s Shadow Kill – while others he has done have won prizes in Venice and New Delhi)  ignoring his storied track-record of exquisite, acutely engaged films, which goes back to his first feature from 1972, One’s Own Choice.

He gazes at the characters in this film with wonderment and a sort of affectionate despair, and also familiarity, since he knows them well – Sridevi with her dissatisfied fidgeting, Unni resting til the end of his days on dried (and inherited) laurels, Rajamma maintaining stoic tenderness but whose adult life has been a frightened tremble protracted over decades. “I have almost reproduced my own family,” Gopalakrishnan says of the characters in Rat-Trap. “The house that you see in the film is almost a recreation of my ancestral home where I grew up. In some ways the character [presumably Unni] is also me…” It is all the more surprising, in light of this, that he would outwardly identify with any one of the caged characters of this film, rather than repudiate their shortcomings altogether. Their torment at being dragged into modernity (or growing up in modernity while tied to a heavy stone of feudalism) is one that he himself has felt, or at least been close to in his life.

Rat-Trap may be called a satire, but it feels far too slow and chilling to hang that tag unreservedly. Without question it is both social commentary specific to Kerala, and a wider portrait of human emotions, which get run down by the stunting familiarity of traditions and institutions. And while on one level, Gopalakrishnan is looking at how complacency can keep people immersed in an outmoded system, he is also making a statement on complacency in general, and how such a system creates people whose every fiber is cowardice. Both Rajamma and Unni respond to each successive challenge and disruption in distinct, but ultimately analogous ways, backing down, shutting things out, forever struggling to buoy themselves on a comfortable stability. The situation of the slave and that of the master don’t seem all that different in this sense, as both support a system. The two of them may be as imprisoned as everyone else, but they each set their own snares and stand vigilant against their own escapes.


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