Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s 'Elippathayam' - An Intimate Portrait Of The Decay Of Feudal Kerala!

By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on August 16, 2016

Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap, 1981) is the first film of Adoor Gopalakrishnan to be shot in colour. The film can be arguably christened as one of the best films from the oeuvre of the director’s filmography. The film has minimal usage of dialogues and does not follow the conventionally popular narrative structure. Rather it takes the shape of an episodic form of storytelling emphasizing on the progression taking place in the lives of the characters trapped within the domain of ancestral inheritance of feudalistic behaviors.

The film can be perceived as poetic expression of human beings caught within the scraps of ancient time that once was an integral part of their social identity. The firm and unrelenting restrain on the tempo has given the film a cinematic idiom that is both austere and cerebral.

The long takes and prolonged moments of silences establish a pattern in accordance with the reaction of the characters to various situations, changes in a subtle way. This deliberate slow pacing combined with the minimalism within the frame gives the viewer the impression on the characters of the film caught up in the vortex of a bygone period.

Vestiges Of Feudalistic Hangover

Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) is the only male heir of the sprawling ancestral house of the rural Kerala of the 1960s.  He lives with his two unmarried younger sisters Rajamma (Sharada) and Sridevi (Jalaja), in a household whose source of income are the paddy fields and coconut trees. The film begins at the point when the government has promulgated the abolition of feudalism and the once powerful feudal land owing family is on the verge of decline.

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 celling. We then move into the exterior as well as the interior space of the household, emphasis on the various architectural structures. The juxtaposition of the various shot evokes in the viewer a montage-like feeling without providing us with any coherent connection. One assumes the intention of the filmmaker to be to provide us with a sense of disorientation in order to reflect on the life of the three characters of the film.

The symbolic representation of clock suggests stagnancy in the life of the characters for whom time has stood still and the inhabitants of the world outside had made advances with their life and the confinement of the house acts as a metaphor of a rat-trap for the characters of the film.

An Indictment of Decadent Past

Unni has been portrayed as an apathetic character who prefers to while away his time by lolling on his armchair either reading the newspaper or sleeping. He remains immune to the socio-economic changes that have effected his reputation amongst the other classes of the remote village. He represents a quintessential representation of a derelict feudal landlord who needs to be served. As a result of this Rajaama has to attend to all the household requirement of his lazy and selfish brother - from cooking food to heating water for his bath to ironing his clothes to preparing coffee for him.

He even refuses the proposal of marriage for her on the pretext of not getting her married to a widower, who is inferior to their lineage. But in reality, Unni can’t afford to loose the comfort of a lethargic life amidst the household drudgery granted to him by the docile Rajamma. When his elder sister Janamma (Rajam K. Nair) moves in with them to demand a share of the property, Unni is disinclined to meet her demands. He even remains unaffected by the bitter fact that Sridevi has eloped.

Later in the film his world turns topsy-turvy when Rajamma falls ill and is rescued by the villagers.  Now since Unni has no one to care for, he locks himself up in the safe confines of his house. But the villagers intrude into the house and chase him away just like the rat that was chased by the inhabitants of the house at the beginning of the film. As a retribution for his misdeeds, Unni is dumped into the pond from where he emerges out with a sense of humiliation and shivering from the coldness of the water, which he has previously feared.

The Qualitative Presence of Ambiance

The skillfully structured sound design of the film essentially highlights the symptomatic effect in the realm of the films narrative pattern. The ambient sound of the scenes helps the characters to gel harmoniously with the thematic fabric of film. For instance the sequence where Unni has prepared himself to attend a function, but his plan for the visit gets thwarted when he comes across a water logged lane. He waits there, holding his slippers in his hand for a good length of time and finally decides to retreat. The sound design is mostly ambient, with the chirping of bird.

Similarity in another scene where Unni is flipping through the pages of the newspaper, lounging in his armchair when a cow invades his compound. He makes feeble attempts to shoo away the animal and seeks the help of his sister Rajamma. In this particular scene also the ambiance dominates the sound pattern. In both the scenes the minimal usage of sound element not only makes the entire scene into a comical situation but also introduces us to the traits of the character.

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. The first time we come across the sound when both Rajamma and Sridevi make efforts to have a glimpse of the airplane. Rajamma gets attacked by a sudden 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. So in both the scenes the sound of the airplane not only gives information regarding the physical deterioration of Rajamma but also the progression of the narrative structure.

Reputed British Film Institute awarded Elippathayam with the Sutherland Trophy for the most original and imaginative film of 1982. Adoor Gopalakrishnan became the second Indian filmmaker to win this award after a span of 23 years. The first Indian to have won this award was Satyajit Ray for the film Apur Sansar. No other Indian filmmaker has since won this award. The film was also shown at various international film festivals such as in Cannes (Non-competitive section), New York, Sao Paulo, Nantes, and Paris etc. The film also won the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Malayalam and the Best Autobiography Award, beside three other Kerala State Film Awards.


Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He's currently working as an independent film and video editor.


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