A feudal lord is like a rat trapped in a granary. The rat does not have to worry about the outer world as long as granary (read –Wealth) is full. But when slowly granary turned towards emptiness, it turns out to be a fix. The Perfect Rat Trap. The film documents the fall of feudal system in Kerala and how this new crisis faced by otherwise relaxing, lazy and self pre-occupied feudal lords have to face imminent tragedy.
The chief protagonist of ‘Elippathayam’ (also known as ‘Rat-Trap’) is feudal lord named Unni. He has three sisters. The eldest one is already married and comes once in a while to meet his brother to demand her monthly share in the property. The youngest sister, Sridevi studies in college and living in youthful world of carefree fancy for a young new teacher. The responsible, concerning and most mature character of the film is the middle sister, Rajamma, who passed her marriageable age (as per Indian customs) and handles all the chores and affairs of home. She’s the most available character in the film and she’s the one on whom the feeble and inactive feudal brother rely so heavily. Throughout the film Unni is found restless, over protected, inactive and often preoccupying with self. All we see in the film is his idleness, sleeping and routine roaming. He is unconcerned about anything serious or one that demands attention. He’s avoiding all the issues that need immediate attention whether its concern for his marriageable sister, look after his own property, share the property with his elder sister, facing thieves stealing coconuts at night or trying to search for his runaway sister. It seems that he is surviving on some sort of horribly inactive and non-reactive limbo towards reality of life. His futile existence is trapped in by his own routine inhibition and monotony of life and so he was absolutely unable to comprehend the circumstances and life around him.
Metaphorically to this central story, Adoor set the physical act of rat trap. And it was repeated three times where rat was caught and the youngest sister carried it to the nearby pond. And towards the end we see that all three sisters one by one left the house in different situations. And finally we see the personal doom vehement and claustrophobic bringing a personal tragedy under its own set trap. Though regional, this is a film which is so universal in its theme and commendable in its artistic achievement. The film is experimental in both form and content and yet not it becomes too heavy or complicated to its common viewers. The pensive and restless mood runs throughout the film where the whole house serves the metaphor of one big rat trap.
In an interview the writer-director Adoor Gopalkrishnan said, ‘The idea (to make the film) came from thought- Why it is that, we do not react naturally to things around us?’ He didn’t mind confessing in the same interview that much of the plot and characters of the film are inspired from his own family as in his childhood he witnessed many of things that became direct or indirect source that became seed of the film.
‘Elipatthayam’ is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding film, and the contribution of Adoor Gopalkrishnan is surely radical and grounded here. It is Adoor’s first color film and one can see the brilliant use of the colors, background and sound in the entire film. They all contribute a new dimension to the plot, characters and bleak atmosphere of feudal collapse and doomed personal tragedy. Apart of technical and aesthetically richness, he managed to get the fine performances from all cast. For me the most noticeable act was one who played the character of middle sister, Rajamma. It was performed so naturally by one of the finest South Indian actress named Sharada. One can see her sincerity in almost all frames in the entire film. Though she didn’t get any award for this film, she won three National Awards in her span of career ranging in various south Indian cinema till day. Many critics considered as one of the most accomplished film of Adoor Gopalkrishnan, the film won the prestigious British Film Institute Award in 1982 for the most original and imaginative film of the year.