Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Gnawing Things About the House: Rat-Trap (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

‘Watch a rat being trapped,’ Sridevi tells her older sister in a line that serves for the film as a whole. Her brother Unni has apparently been bitten by a rat, though as there is no mark on him, we infer the rodents are in his dreams as well as scuttling around the house. The following morning, Sridevi fetches the large wooden trap down from the attic, removes the cobwebs, greases it and primes it with a tasty bite of coconut.

Rat-Trap takes place wholly in and surrounding a landlord's house in Kerala. The house belongs to another age, as does the ‘young master’ Unni, the lazy, taciturn brother and sole surviving heir of a decaying feudal family surviving on the increasingly meagre resources of its estate produce. His older sister Rajamma waits on him hand and foot, supplying him with food and hot water; Sridevi, the younger, is studying at school and is drawn only reluctantly into his service. Barring occasional incursions into the courtyard with produce from the estate, the house is isolated. Within the house too, siblings have little meaningful contact with each other, leaving each in their own world – of ennui, of servitude, of study. Dialogue is spare and details accrue through the character’s carefully rendered surroundings and personal effects. Matching her role as the servant of the house, Rajamma is often shown framed and partially obscured by doorways, dependent on others for her position; she is rooted there and her removal will require force. Sridevi however has claimed a passageway to and from the compound through her visits to school. Rajamma’s blue clothing of submissiveness is conrasted with Sridevi’s red of ambition.

Unni’s movements in the film are ever inwards. He is sunk in introspection, entirely self-absorbed. As the days go by, he withdraws completely from meaningful relations with others. As his world contracts from village (in one of the very first scenes we see him dressed to go to a wedding, only for him to hesitate at a large puddle that spans the road, then turn back), to estate, to chair on the veranda, to inside the house, to his bed, his listlessness sours to psychosis and he becomes an unshaven, sweating, red-eyed, frightened wreckage of a man.

The film’s situation brings to mind Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf (‘Are your worships troubled with any gnawing things about the house?’ says the visiting Rat-Wife in that play, giving tangible form to the household’s unspoken darkness.) In Rat-Trap the house is certainly troubled with gnawing things. After rats shred Unni’s carefully-ironed shirt, Rajamma suggests using poison on them all but realises that then the dead rodents would lie stinking in the walls or under the floorboards. Throughout the film characters are shown with scent or talcum powder, as if trying to cover up just such a rotten smell in the house. It is as if the rats have already been poisoned, but the stench, coming instead from familial decay, is pervasive and lingers. Likewise, when characters disappear from the film their space is retained. The screen is haunted by their absence.

The haunting musical theme is an aural equivalent to this smell of decomposition. Consisting of five descending bowed notes against a discomfiting drone, it was deliberately designed to be un-hummable and incomplete, suggesting disintegration and falling. Punctuated by sound effects – the creaking of the attic trapdoor and the rat cage door, the clanking of the lid of an iron, the discordant, jarring strikes of sound that accompany Sridevi’s trips to the pond with the contents of the trap – adds to the sense of menace and unease in the film that we get from the uncertain, ill-defined relationships between people. At the centre of it all is Unni, bloated from keeping everything for himself.

Unease also comes from the way in which, right from the film’s opening credits, details of objects and textures of the house – keys, a clock, a chipped storage jar, a split wooden roof boss – are delineated with a near-hallucinatory clarity that gives us the impression our minds have already been disoriented by Kerala’s punishing heat.

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