ARCHIVES - INDIAN CINEMA
Elippathayam: The trap of feudalism
ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN'S cinematic canvas that pans a quarter century has always been refreshingly novel, sometimes idealistic, but invariably daring. Often compared to the psychological norms set by Satyajit Ray, Adoor's celluloid has certainly been as gutsy as that of the man from Bengal. If Ray could have questioned the purity of a temple's holy water, Adoor takes on holy cows like feudalism and Communism with unnerving courage.
If Adoor's guts is admirable in an age when film-makers are relentlessly scanning the easy way out, bending over to please, and all for the moolah, his spirit of independence is even more so. Which is clearly etched in his overwhelming involvement in his work. He starts with his own idea, writes the script, and goes about doing just about everything else himself. Quite a task; the energy for this can only come from a man whose passion, nay his very life, is cinema.
One of his movies that has stood the test of time is the 1981 "Elippathayam" (The Rat Trap), which narrates the story of Unni. He is like a piece of aging furniture propped up against a wall, used now and then when the Nair family (whose head he incidentally is) feels a thirst for his blood. The family is a classic example of fading feudalism, the community having enriched itself once upon a time on rent collection.
The family's three women - Unni's sisters - have roles that smack of a decaying culture. The eldest bitterly fights for the spoils, or whatever is left of them. Her younger sibling dons the robe of a slave, acting as Unni's surrogate mother. The youngest in the house exudes a certain defiance, and rejects the old order.
Tossed about and battered, Unni buries himself in a dark hole - as a rat would - and is ultimately overcome with depression.
Adoor uses his camera with a fine sense of rhythm to capture the dying wail of an order. He varies his shots to convey all this with an impressive degree of conviction. Add to this his isolated sounds, and we have a classic picture that delves deep into the psyche of not just the man, but the group he symbolises.
Someone asked Adoor long ago, if "Elippathayam" was autobiographical. He said yes, and pointed out to the similarities between his own ancestral home and that of Unni's. But he emphasised that the film had an important element of optimism. It was a tale about Kerala's stride into modernity.
Some writers have said that this "reformist dimension achieves an extra edge given the relative absence of that tradition in Travancore's literature...Travancore's delayed entry into the nationalist mainstream , and its change from a feudal State to one run by a CPI Government created a break in Kerala's history which animates his cinema".
Be that as it may, Adoor's "Elippathayam" remains an endearing string of frames that can be watched time and again.
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated November 4 2000)