Revisiting Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam

Credit: General Pictures

Considered to be the greatest living filmmaker in India, Adoor Gopalakrishnan entered into his 80th year of filmmaking, on July 3rd this year. With an oeuvre that consists of Swayamvaram, Elippathayam, Mathilukal and Vidheyan, what has set him apart as a filmmaker is how his ability to bring in academically oriented dramatisations and intellectually stimulating concepts within his scripts gravitating towards themes well-established in social, political and legal theory. While his films have dealt with ideas predominantly, they are well grounded in socio-economic reality. Gopalakrishnan has been active in documentary filmmaking as in fictional cinema and was a key pioneer in the film society movement in the country during the 60s. Apart from winning the National Award numerous times, he won the FIPRESCI prize for Mathilukal in 1990 at the Venice Film Festival.

Perhaps, the best way to realize the ability by which Gopalakrishnan dramatizes ideas is through one of his finest films, Elippathayam ( The Rat- Trap), which released in 1981. Set in the 1940s, the film draws the picture of the vestige of feudalism as well as the matrilineal structure of the society in Kerala which is narrated with a delicate mixture of metaphorical language and lyricism. It critically analyses the tragic journey of a family that is caught in the whirlpool of the decaying past through the chronicles of a family. Widely regarded as one of the greatest Indian films ever made, it won two National Awards and the prestigious Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival.

The film focuses on Unnikunju, a middle aged man with an extreme form of feudal mentality. He is an ego-centric self-centred, insensitive, weak-willed and inert person who likes to live in his own world escaping from facing the challenges of the outside world. He withdraws like a rat (a recurring metaphor, that eventually forms the title of the film) into a closed chamber. He suffers from a sense of narcissism and is often found preening himself, cutting and cleaning his nails, massaging oil on his body and trimming his moustache. He is a symbol of a patriarchal figure in feudal society who is completely dependent upon his sisters. He does not want to go out of his self and  share love and thus, stays away from Menakshi, a married woman in the same village who passes him varied sorts of sensuous gestures. The world around Unni is changing, but he refuses to change and cuts himself off from the outside world.

Credit: General Pictures

Unnikunju has three sisters – Janamma, his elder sister, who is married, living with her children. Sometimes, she visits him to claim the share of her property. His two unmarried younger sisters are Rajamma and Sridevi. Rajamma, a devoted sister, takes care of Unni day in and day out like an unpaid slave. She irons his shirts, brings his slippers and umbrella while going out to attend  marriage ceremonies, boils water for him, cooks for him and almost forgets her ‘self’ or individual. She suppresses her passions, desires and dreams and never lets it get known. When she wants to go out of this trap by marrying a man and find a new world of her own, Unni rejects the marriage proposal citing different reasons. She is very loyal to her brother and never utters a single word against him. The youngest sister of the house is Sridevi, a college student who spends her time living in her own romantic and dream world.

The narrative is deceptively simple if one tries to locate it through the way in which the screenplay works. Primarily, it is just a story stylised by Gopalakrishnan through visual metaphors, colour coded into the depictions of characters in a way where much remains on the viewer to unpack as the story progresses from one shot to another. In an interview, Gopalakrishnan has said, “Cinema has a lot to do with one’s own culture – my culture in my case. I’m not just telling a story. It’s beyond that. The story is just an excuse. I am trying to make the audience experience many things – not just that one thing – the story. The story is just an excuse to keep the audience inside the hall. Of course there has to be this element of the audience wanting to know what happens next. That’s why they stay. Otherwise they’ll walk out. The story is what keeps them sitting. But my primary goal is for the audience to share the experience I want to give them, hopefully an experience on many levels.” This suits perfectly with the depiction of feudalism and patriarchal mindset in Elippathayam.

What instantly catches the eye is the manner in which Gopalakrishnan stages the film like a cycle of acts. The beginning of the film is strikingly similar in the way it ends, grounding the primary metaphor, that of a rat-trap, chosen to depict feudalism in a vastly changing society. The opening shots of the film highlights on certain visual elements, which are the resemblances of a feudal establishment- the ancient iron key, a wall clock, the heavy carved door, a oil lamp, the elaborately carved timber of the ceiling. The juxtaposition of the various shot evokes in the viewer a montage-like feeling without providing us with any coherent connection.The usage of the piercing sound of an airplane flying off-screen has also been used as a creative device in two scenes of the film, first to signify  the deterioration of Rajamma and then to show the progress of time.

Credit: General Pictures

The first time we come across the sound when both Rajamma and Sridevi make efforts to have a glimpse of the airplane. “Where is it?” She continues to look at the sky inquiring where it is. She cannot see it. Sridevi says to her, “Too late. The plane cannot wait for you.” Rajamma has a sudden spell of dizziness and slumps to the ground. In the second scene when the sound of the airplane makes its off-screen presence, Rajamma is doing the dishes. Sridevi does not accompany her because she had mysteriously eloped with someone. Rajamma rises on her feet with effort. She looks skywards and as the sound of the airplane keeps heightening the abdominal pain of Rajamma also keep increasing, proportionately. Unable to bear the excruciating distress, she reclines on the ground.

Elippathayam has a poetic sophistication in its structure. As the story moves forward, Unni finds himself caught like a rat, and in the end of the film, he is drowned in the village pond. Strikingly ordinary in its setting but visually rich and thematically universal, that is how Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam can be best described. At the same time, in accordance with the rest of his narratives, they are usually placed within the larger frameworks of guilt and redemption where hope of emancipation – moral, spiritual, and creative – is a real one. It is in this restrained yet politically attuned filmmaking that Gopalakrishnan’s ideas find meaning in his films. At a time when most filmmakers tend to neglect style over substance and move on with the progression of digitalisation, Gopalakrishnan’s films stand as a stark reminder of how singularly important it is to constantly refurbish one’s own method and apparatus, and explore ideas through art- not the other way round.

Santanu Das

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