Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) is a middle-aged landlord somewhere in a village in Kerala. He is the radical opposite of the common image and conception about landlords who own large tracts of land and plantations and live in a mansion with a large retinue of servants who eat out of their hands. Lazy beyond belief, he is a complete social recluse who runs away from any kind of social interaction with relatives, neighbours, his farm hands or visitors. He does not interact even with his two sisters, Rajamma (Sharada) and the pretty Sridevi (Jalaja) who take care of him. To ensure that his comfort matrix remains undisturbed, he keeps cancelling any marriage alliance that comes for Rajamma. She is visibly sad and disturbed but has never learnt to question her brother’s decisions. Sridevi is more conscious and takes the first opportunity to elope, presumably with a boyfriend, without leaving a note. Unni, however, is too scared and too lazy to bother about finding out her whereabouts. As Rajamma falls sick, another older sister, Janamma (Rajam K Nair), lands up to claim her fifty per cent share of the property. Unni refuses to part with this and disgusted, she leaves with her light-fingered, wayward son. As Rajamma’s condition worsens, she is taken out of the house much like the rats were. When Unni realises he has no one to fall back on now, unable to live without their support, he goes out of control. The villagers carry him to the same pond where the rats were drowned but he rises from the murky waters, perhaps to face his destiny all alone…
The test of a great film lies in that each time one watches it, different layers of meaning begin to emerge that may not have been noticed in the earlier viewing. Ellippathayam is one such film that offers different readings at different viewings, especially when each successive viewing has a reasonably long time-gap as one’s viewing also matures over time. I have seen this film thrice now with huge gaps in between and it has been an extremely enriching experience each time. Elippathayam is not just arguably Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s greatest film, but also one of the finest Indian films ever made. Set against the decaying feudal set up in Kerala and showing a microscopic eye for tiny little details, Adoor brillaintly deals with the tragedy of an idle, lotus-eating man who exemplifies selfishness, personal failure and subtle violence in a way that destroys the lives of not just himself but also those he lives with. Unni is perhaps the most unconventional protagonist one has encountered over the history of Indian cinema. The ambience he lives in – physical, mental, filial – defines him. Unni is an escapist, a coward and a narcissist whose entire life is divided between taking care of himself on the one hand and on the other, making his two sisters attend to all his cares including capturing rats who invade the home and even eat up into his ironed shirt. Sridevi, the younger sister, keeps drowning them in the pond behind their home after catching them in the mousetrap The problem does not cease and Unni is unperturbed because he knows his needs will be taken care of by his sisters. He is unconcerned when his sisters point out that their coconuts are being stolen. And while he feels physically attracted to a farm hand who tries her best to seduce him, he literally begins to walk faster away from her in order to avoid her…
The Rat Trap, the title of the film in English, is not just a physical reality but is also a metaphor for the film. The large, dilapidated family home of the Unni family itself is a rat trap wherein one must either die or remain trapped or go berserk if one cannot escape. Each member is captive within his/her own rat-trap which Sridevi manages to escape from but Rajamma gets trapped within. By the film’s end, Unni rises from the slushy pond, his hair dripping with water, water dripping off his clothes which suggests that he is doomed to live in the rat trap he has reduced his life and his home to.
The acting by every actor enriches the tapestry of the film including the close details of the dresses they wear, their body language and the production design. Karamana Janardanan Nair gives a goosebump inducing performance as the protagonist, Unni. He is always seen reading a newspaper which, as the film rolls, appears more like an escape route to avoid communication with anyone, including his sisters. One wonders whether he reads the newspaper at all except once, when he sees an advertisement for “male rejuvenation” medicine. But he does not follow it up. He is just too lazy. Once we see him step into a room where Sridevi stayed, and probing through her notes, discovers what appears to be a letter. But he still does not react… Sharada as Rajamma is excellent as ever but her clearly plucked eyebrows are jarring. Her skin too, is quite blemish free though she is malnourished and made to do backbreaking work. Jalaja as Sridevi looks pretty in red without make-up and is the only character in Unni’s family who has a voice of her own. It is a very spontaneous performance by Jalajaa. Rajam K Nair’s arrogant sister is convincing. A very convincing cameo is turned by the actor who visits Unni with a marriage proposal for Rajamma where he points out that Unni keeps cancelling all the matches he brought for Rajamma. The man, before leaving in anger, takes the glass of buttermilk from Rajamma – a lovely touch. “Its good for the heat,” he says. The neighbouring farmhand who tries to seduce a scared Unni is also very good.
Cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma has lit up the film beautifully even as he shifts gears from tight close-ups of the beads of sweat on Unni’s forehead whenever he is nervous and shaky and frightened, which he always is, to mid-shots of the rat-trap being carried back to the pond from a particular angle as if from an outsider’s perspective to a close-up of Rajamma’s face that changes expression from happy curiosity to sad compliance when she eavesdrops into the conversation around her proposed marriage. The soft lighting in the indoor shots invests the film with a new dimension, holding characters and objects in relief within circles, slices and sheafs of light while the backdrop turns darker. The surrounding outdoors filled with the lush green mantle of nature defines a symbiotic contrast with the darkness – physical, emotional and social – of the Unni home.
The evocative sound design is another highlight of the film. The film has very little dialogue between and among the characters and the silences between them speaks volumes. Whenever the rat trap or Rajamma is being carried to the pond, the soundtrack is filled with a queer and disturbing sound that offers a different perspective on the ugly twittering of rats and preempts the stark tragedy that is to follow. The editing is seamless, its rhythms of daily life blending perfectly with the film.
Elippathayam was screened at the Cannes Film Festival of 1982 and bagged the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival that year. It also won the British Film Institute Award for the Most Original and Imaginative Film. Back home, the film picked up National Awards for Best Film in Malayalam and Best Audiography and the Kerala State Award for Best Film.
Malayalam, Drama, Color