Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I'm a rat trapped. Elippathayam (aka The Rap Trap).

Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) is a Malayalam film from the early 1980's directed by the famous Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who is named the "true heir to Satyajit Ray", according to the DVD cover of the Region 2 DVD. The film is also one of the reasons I just don't watch art cinema all that often.

Gopalakrishnan is surely an accomplished director, and the film is certainly an accomplished one. Among its accolades is the British Film Institute's "Most Original and Imaginative Film shown at a National Film Theatre". What's so original about it, then?

The plot centers around a man called Unni, who lives with his sisters and is, quite frankly, a giant douchebag. Of course, the thing about art films is that you're not supposed to phrase a character's douchebaggery as such. I'm supposed to say, he is trapped in the metaphorical rat trap of the past, determined not to accept the fall of the feodalist system and rejecting the world around him that is getting on with the times. If this sounds original and imaginative, you know, that's because it probably is. But what you see on-screen is a coward of a man, treating his sisters and the rest of the world badly and eaten up by his own paranoia. And anyway, any philosophical conclusions I made of the film, the DVD cover already told me and the essay booklet inside the DVD clarified further. So it's not that I figured out the film - it figured out itself.

So I suppose this is where I'm going to drop a cliché on my innocent readers while addressing the movie: "it's not you, it's me". Because Elippathayam is not a bad art film - it's just one of those things that highlights to me why I personally don't really enjoy artsy films all that much. The film is ripe with symbolism and meaning that I probably wouldn't understand if I hadn't read the attached essay, or perhaps would've only picked up on a rewatch - a rewatch that might've never taken place as the film simply isn't encaging enough for me to return to.

It's a difficult topic. Does a movie have to result to low-brow antics in order to entertain me? I don't think so, nor do I consider myself a 'dumb' viewer. But this type of cinema, I guess it's just not for me. There is constantly this attached difficulty that the films aren't about the events that take place in them, but the themes and the meanings those themes take in the film. To discuss what happens in the movie is of secondary importance - the themes and messages are the priority, but I guess the metaphorical rat trap - aha! - is the fact that once you discuss the movie and reveal the themes and the treatment given to them by the director, you ultimately 'spoil' the movie to the person who hasn't seen it. But perhaps there is joy in the discovery of these things, even after you know about them. Like I said, it's just not my kind of cinema.

(This was, by the way, my first Malayalam film. I knew I should've started with something from the more commercial side...)


ajnabi said...

I'm with you, veracious, on the arthouse cinema thing. I would feel vastly more intelligent if I could appreciate it with my spirit and heart as well as my head, but I just can't enjoy it--and I think one of art's primary purposes is to use aesthetic pleasure to spur contemplation. If there's no pleasure then I tend to wince away, not contemplate, so whatever points are being made are utterly lost on plebian moi.

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain too. I know I'm not stupid, but I don't have the patience for these slow-as-molasses, languid, filled with symbolic-imagery movies (e.g. Shyam Benegal or M-I).

Anonymous said...


I definitely agree with you that you should have started seeing commercial malayalam movies first. Even though they are commercial, yet they are infintely superior to any other Indian cinema coz of their realistic portrayal, lovely locations and down to earth acting by their actors.

During my last visit to India i was travelling around Kerala and actually bought about 18 Mohanlal Malayalyam movies. I am enjoying watching them at my own leisure!

I would definitely recommend movies such as Bharatam, Soopanam, Thanamatra etc

I too stay away from these so called arty movies!

veracious said...

ajnabi - Haha, yes, exactly. Occasionally I like something on the more arthouse side of things but mostly these faves fall into the category of "off-beat films with mainstream stars", like Gulzar films of the past or Omkara or what have you.

memsaab - Ditto on "I know I'm not stupid".. :D

anon - Hiya! Thanks for the recs, I'm not sure if I'll be able to get my hands on those but I'll try. And yes, I've heard many a great thing about the Malayalam industry, even in the commercial side. I have a friend who's a fan of Mammootty.

Anonymous said...

I agree - most of the time, I don't get it either. I remember watching some Adoor movie a long time ago and coming away completely mystified. Just when it seemed like something was about to happen, the end credits started rolling!

But you know, I'd rather watch these movies and then figure out that they aren't for me. Coz every once in a while, some arthouse flick comes along and rocks my world. I remember being blown away by Kurosawa's Rashomon, and some more movies like that. Sometimes, something just clicks, and it makes it all worthwhile.

I guess what I am trying to get at is, every once in a while, you get to eat the cheese and walk away :-)


veracious said...

R - I definitely get what you're saying, and I try to be open-minded and watch recommended artsy films when possible and when the recommendations catch my interest on a movie.

Your re-working of my metaphor was ingenious, by the way. Well done. :D

Anonymous said...

Watch Manichitrathazhu. The best Malayalam movie
It is the best all round movie-Acting, story, music, --- Outstanding. More info at