As with so many of the films Second Run have elected to (re-)introduce to a UK audience, Rat-Trap does not announce itself as a masterpiece. Watching the film is a slow burn of an experience - by the time we’ve reached the ambivalent final image we are fully under the skins of its characters and their seemingly inevitable decline. Writer and director Adoor Gopalakrishnan sets out his stead with the opening credits. Both intimate and intense, they combine close-up images of the house where much of the drama will take place and M.B. Srinivasan’s score, so abrasive it refuses the viewer a chance to look away. The rat-trap of the title may be the governing metaphor for proceedings, but it also describes the film itself: we’re stuck with these people, and their dramas will occupy us completely over the next two hours.
Essentially, Rat-Trap is a family melodrama, though it is far more subtle than that description allows. One brother and three sisters make up the key players, the women’s lives effectively governed by his. He’s Unni (played superbly by Karamana), a man whose existence has devolved to pure selfishness and seclusion. The two youngest, Rajamma (Sarada) and Sridevi (Jalaja), serve as both mothers and slaves; every whim is acted upon, whether shooing away an unwanted cow or investigating his paranoid cries in the night as something bites or falls upon him. Considerably stronger is the eldest sister, Janamma (Rajam K. Nair), married and with a teenage son (Prakash), yet still dependent on her brother as she tries to stake her claim on the family property.
The whole situation is incredibly despairing – especially as all four seem complicit in its combination of servitude and fear – and one that, inevitably, can only get worse. Gopalakrishnan, if this is the correct way of putting it, executes their downward spiral to perfection. His stance is detached and observation, yet never voyeuristic. There’s a humanity at play as he presents these characters, their sore points being as valid and important as the warmer moments. His camera is still and unobtrusive, any movements are minor and moderate (until the final act demands otherwise), the effect being that we can only watch and bring about our own understanding.
Indeed, given that the plot dynamics are almost set in stone, as it were, Rat-Trap is best approached as a character study rather than as a piece of storytelling; our best way of understanding is, however crudely, to psychoanalyse those onscreen. Key in this respect, then, is Unni and his weaknesses. Early on we see him venture out of the family home only to return when faced with a large puddle in his path (effortlessly crossed by a young boy). It’s a situation that perfectly sums up his very existence: always taking the easy option and thinking solely of his own person. Of course, such self-absorption proves to have a devastating effect on those around him and, eventually, himself. But it is also this very characteristic that prevents him from seeing it coming. He’s not a brutal person (compared to that long line of abusive fathers and spouses cinema has offered up over the years, from Jungle Fever to Nil by Mouth), merely small-minded and in a state of arrested development. He sulks like a child, shies away from any overt responsibility – as when faced with thieves in the middle of the night – and refuses to recognise an outside world. The entrance in the wall surrounding the family home is simply a window, any who chose to enter are either dismissed or ignored, human or animal.
With such a strong central focus, the female presence risks being diminished. Certainly, Gopalakrishnan sees them, at least partially, in symbolic terms. Each is represented by a colour that sums up their defining characteristics: Janamma is green for earthliness, pragmatism and common sense; Rajamma blue for nobility and selflessness; and Sridevi red for youth and vitality. Yet at the same time these women never become ciphers even as they serve to explain Unni all the better. The humanity with which the director approaches the whole of Rat-Trap makes the futility of their own situation just as affecting as Unni’s. Moreover, we are never granted an outside view meaning that their existence has to be just as real in order for the picture to succeed. And this is something Rat-Trap most certainly does, no matter how quietly it may go about it.
Indian cinema remains one of the blind spots of UK DVD distributors, especially the works of those directors screaming out for wider attention beyond the specialists. The likes of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt and Mehboob Khan are represented, at best, by a mere handful of titles, though even these can prove to be less than acceptable. (To take Dutt as an example we find Kagaaz Ke Phool unavailable in its original ’scope ratio, whilst my copy of Pyaasa suffers from disastrously out-of-synch subtitles during the final third.) Indeed, even the major figure of Satyajit Ray has his output represented in a haphazard and occasionally imperfect manner, though releases are increasing in number. All of which makes this disc of Rat-Trap (a worldwide premiere on the format) all the more delightful. Admittedly the print isn’t in the greatest of conditions – there’s noticeable damage throughout (scratches and “tramlining” being most prominent) and the colours can suffer at times – but it comes in its original Academy ratio, director approved and with a level of detail that is consistently impressively. It’s also worth noting that Indian cinema, especially of this period, is rarely available in pristine form. The flaws present here are certainly no worse than I’ve encountered elsewhere – indeed, in this light I was really quite impressed. Moreover, the real surprise lies in the restored mono soundtrack, which beautifully captures Devadas’ sound design and Srinivasan’s score, whilst the optional English subtitles are similarly excellent.
In addition the disc also finds room for a newly produced 22-minute interview with Gopalakrishnan himself. He touches on how he got into filmmaking and the like, but the primary focus is on Rat-Trap, its inspiration, conception and the reaction it had both at home and on an international scale (where it one a number of awards, including the British Film Institute’s for Most Impressive and Original Film of the Year). Interestingly, he notes how its effect would be more pronounced on a local audience, yet its universal appeal – and significance – is not to be denied. (Note that optional English subtitles are not available for this piece.) Rounding off the package we also have a twelve-page booklet containing notes by film historian Lalit Mohan Joshi, critic Derek Malcolm and credits.