Rat Trap as Mise en Abyme: The Levels of meaning in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ELIPPATHAYAM (1982)
This year (2022) marks the fiftieth anniversary of Swayamvaram the first film made by Adoor Gopalakrishnan who is among the internationally acclaimed Indian filmmakers. Swayamvaram revolved around a young couple, Sita (Sarada) and Vishwam (Madhu), who choose each other on their own, leave their village to live together in the town and face the challenge of surviving in a climate of acute unemployment. Although the film concerns more with the Sita character, it is not entirely focused on her. From Adoor’s second film Kodiyettam to Anantaram, the approach is that of the biography of an individual. There is no social problem that is taken up in Kodiyettam. The film covers the vast cultural landscape of Kerala. The free-spirited Shankaran (Gopi) takes a winding road to become a responsible man. His journey is structured in parallel to the village festival.
Adoor’s third film Elippathayam, produced by K. Ravindran Nair and released in 1982, brought international attention to Adoor’s work. It had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 1982. At the London Film Festival, Adoor won the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy which is annually given to the maker of the most original and imaginative film. Elippathayam also won National Awards for Best Regional Film (Malayalam) and Best Audiography. It won the Kerala State Award for Best Film. Now that it is four decades since the film was made, has it weathered the passing of time?
The film is set perhaps in the 1960s in an ancestral home called tharavad — traditionally a common house for a joint family in Kerala. The tharavad used to follow a matrilineal line which was most commonly seen among the Nair community. However, the practice largely faded after the 19th century. The tharavad had its patriarchal head called karnavar — usually the eldest female family member’s son or brother. “The women of the household would stay back in their maternal homes, while the men often relocated to their wives’ houses. Women of the family gave birth to future generations in the pettmuri or “birth room,” and their children stayed on in the mother’s home. The women [in the distant past] received the majority of the inheritance, but things have since changed.” 
Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair), the middle-aged patriarchal head (karnavar) in Elippathayam remains unmarried. His eldest sister Janamma (Rajam K Nair) moved out of the house after marriage. Unni doesn’t show any interest in getting his middle sister Rajamma (Sarada) and younger sister Sridevi (Jalaja) married as he wants them to do all the household chores for him. He is also clinging on to the family property refusing to share it with his sisters.
In the derelict manor house infested with rats, Unni wakes up one night shouting that he has been bitten by a rat. His younger sister Sridevi sets up a rat trap in which the rat is caught. She drowns the rat in the pond at the back of their house. Unni keeps rejecting the marriage proposals for Rajamma suggested by a relative. He comes to know about Sridevi’s premarital relationship but turns a blind eye to it. Unni is too scared of the thieves who steal coconuts from his farm to confront them. He doesn’t take any action when Sridevi is missing at home. Nor does he respond to Janamma’s demand for her share of the property which forces her to file a case in the court. Unni is left all alone when Sarada falls sick and she is carried away in a serious condition by the neighbours.
The film opens with the shots of the manor house with its closed front door. Inside there is the clock that has stopped functioning. Time stands still for Unni who is trapped inside the ancient house, a remnant of the feudal times. Metaphorically he is caught like a rat in an “Elippathayam” (rat trap). But the film doesn’t stop with conveying it in the title. Sridevi takes out an actual rat trap — which is arguably a mise en abyme as it is inside the rat-trap-like house and it helps in understanding Unni’s situation. Just as the rats get their release — although dead — once they are thrown out of the trap, the human beings (Sridevi, Rajamma and Unni) also get their release once they are taken out/ go out of the trap of the house. Elippathayam is almost entirely set in the tharavad and its adjoining farm. It is in the (film’s) present without any flashbacks or flash forward. The film benefits by these classical unities.
To elaborate on the film’s exposition, it doesn’t start with the establishing shot of the house which comes a little later. Instead, the title sequence opens with the wooden front door that is closed, then the two keys hanging on the wall, the large pot, the grandfather clock that is not ticking, different kinds of traditional lamps that are unlit, the wooden bench, the entablature, the ceiling cornice and the wooden ceiling. It’s only after that there is a shot of the tiled roof with a crow sitting on top and flying away, the gable roof, the tiled roof with gables and then a long shot of the tiled house. It is perhaps to evoke the claustrophobic feeling inside the rat-trap-like-house and the feeling of time standing still that the external view of the house is delayed. This is a house that still retains the old-world charm although it was built long ago in the traditional architectural style and it is well past its glorious days.
After that the film cuts to the shot of the mythological animal “yaali” (pronounced with a hard ‘l’), the armchair, the closed door, the keyhole in it and then the cot inside the room on which Unni is lying down, screaming and shouting that he has been bitten by a rat. Inside the dark interiors of the house the rat is chased to the beating of drums in a fast pace on the soundtrack. When Sridevi takes out the rat trap, the camera is inside the dark attic. The attic access door is raised as Sridevi climbs up the ladder and enters the attic, evoking the feeling that the attic is like a trap. She takes a look at the rat trap with cobwebs. When the rat is caught in the trap, there is a shot of the three of them looking at the rat inside the trap. It gives rise to the feeling that their situation is no different. Unni is in a trap and he has entrapped his sisters Rajamma and Sridevi along with him.
The feudal minded Unni lives in a shell. It’s Sridevi who takes the initiative of getting rid of the rat. When a relative brings the news of a potential alliance for Rajamma, promising more than the normal share of property to the suitor, Unni calls it an insult to suggest a widower for Rajamma. He has all the time in the world to remove the gray hair from his moustache before getting dressed for attending a wedding. He calls Rajamma to bring his chappal as he is about to leave. He once again calls her to bring the umbrella. Just these two shots are sufficient to evoke the patriarchal attitude of Unni and Rajamma’s servility. There is a shallow pool of water on the road which would wet his feet so he returns home. He is confined to his ancestral house with the farm attached to it and the temple. It is funny to see him trying to drive away the cow that enters inside the compound and eats the plants. Sitting in his armchair far away from the cow, he just moves the newspaper sideways making some noise. He is shown hopelessly dependent on others, as he needs Rajamma even for shooing away the cow. She has to heat the water for him and he even asks her to reheat it due to the long time he has taken to apply oil on his body.
He treats almost all the outsiders as adversaries except the Mapila who helps him during the harvest gratis as he feels indebted to Unni’s family. A family friend Mathew in dark glasses and wearing a printed T shirt, who is on a holiday from middle east, comes to see them bringing the typical gift of a deodorant. Unni ridicules him by asking Mathew whether his job there involves manual labour. He also puts him down saying that he has become black because of working in the sun. Unni makes himself scarce to his nephew Ravikuttan by reading the newspaper or sleeping for long. This is to avoid talking about sharing the crop. Ravikuttan is clad in full pants and shirt. Parthajit Baruah has pointed out that Mathew and Ravikuttan “are symbolic of the Western culture invading Keralan [/Keralite] culture zone.”  Unni is too lethargic to get up early in the morning. By cutting himself off from most of the people he gets isolated. Sridevi runs away perhaps eloping with her lover. Janamma who is denied of her share of the inheritance sends court summons to him. He leaves the ailing Rajamma untreated which makes her condition serious. He is indeed caught in a trap. He lacks the perspective of changing times from a feudal system. Nor does he display any leadership quality as the karnavar. It would appear as though Unni has been portrayed to be not having any positive quality. But as per the film’s logic, as long as Unni is inside the rat trap of a house, he cannot perhaps raise above his decadent ways which comes through in the end. Karamana Janardanan Nair has excelled in the role of Unni.
Women in the film
The women characters are in various shades in the film. Janamma is a no non-sense kind of woman who wouldn’t do Unni’s bidding. She is also assertive in asking him her rightful share of the property. When it is denied, she fights it out by moving court. The gentle and hospitable Rajamma is quite the opposite who cannot go against Unni, sacrificing her life in the process. She does the cooking, washing vessels, sweeping the floor, pressing Unni’s shirt, the works. While Rajamma can’t get a glimpse of the plane passing over the house, suggesting that she is trapped, Sridevi can see it and wonder at it. Sridevi is a free spirit who lives in her own world talking about her handsome teacher, beautifying herself and writing love letters. She is smart enough to understand that she will also end up like Rajamma so she escapes for freedom perhaps by eloping with her lover. This is the only time Rajamma makes a feeble protest as Unni doesn’t make any effort to look for Sridevi. It’s instructive to know from Adoor that Janamma is shown to wear green in the film to show earthiness, practicality and intelligence while the color scheme is blue for Rajamma to denote gentleness, submissiveness, and being doomed, and red for Sridevi to symbolize revolt, youth and life.  There is the woman in the neighbourhood who makes overtures towards Unni who ignores her. Towards the end this is the woman who comes to Rajamma’s rescue. Sarada has come up with yet another excellent performance in an Adoor film in the role of Rajamma. Jalaja befits the role of Sridevi.
Adoor has explained how the music was made for Elippathayam.  There is the drone of the Tambura which is played at a slower speed. This theme is in the opening sequence and keeps recurring in the film. Yet another recurring theme music was made to convey the feeling of falling as this film is about the decline of feudalism. It’s played partially in scenes in which Sridevi carries the rat trap to the pond. It’s also played when Rajamma is carried out of the house in a stretcher. When Unni is carried away in the end, it’s played in full.
Unni is devastated and in a state of paranoia after Rajamma is taken away. He shuts himself completely inside the house ignoring the official from the court who has come to hand over the summons to him. Everything is in neglect as indicated by the fallen down banana tree and flowerpot. Some men, who might have been sent by his brother-in-law, enter the house in the night to the beating of drums in a fast pace on the soundtrack, chase him very much like the way the rat was chased in the beginning of the film, lift him as he falls down and carry him to the pond. The theme music of falling is played in full. They throw Unni who is afraid of cold water in the pond just like the way the rats were drowned there. The film would appear severe upon Unni but it has a touch of phantasmagoria. As per the film’s logic, as long as Unni was inside the rat trap of a house, he couldn’t have behaved otherwise. Once he is out of it, the film refrains from finishing him off. The shivering Unni gets up holding his palms together and there is some hope in store for him although it is uncertain.
Elippathayam has in fact grown in its stature over the decades and become a classic in Indian cinema. Like many of Adoor’s films, Elippathayam is based on an original screenplay which makes his achievement all the more significant. It marked the arrival of Adoor as an auteur as his distinctive style of incorporating deeper meaning is even more evident in it than in his previous films. While the denotative meaning of Elippathayam is the effect of decadent feudalism, a connotative meaning is falling behind the times and entrapped in the past. The film gently indicates this connotative meaning by its use of the rat trap as a mise en abyme.
1. Tanika Godbole, India: What is left of matrilineal societies in Kerala? dw.com, 2021
2. Parthajit Baruah, Face-to-Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Noida: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2016
3. Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with VK Cherian, Creative world of Adoor Gopalakrishnan -Swayamvaram@50-Episode 3-Elipathayam. (Rat Trap), Swayamvaram50 Channel on YouTube, 2022