The Language of Cinema Speaks Through Trapped
Vikramaditya Motwane’s new film Trapped creates a new history in the annals of Indian cinema because after Sunil Dutt’s Yaadein (1964), we have not witnessed a film that is focussed just on one character.
But Yaadein was different because it charted an introspective journey of the protagonist who is the sole actor while a female character appears in silhouetted shadows and can be heard only on the soundtrack with two songs on the music track of this unusually challenging film.
Trapped will not make its mark in the Guinness Book of World Records like Yaadein has because there are other characters framing the protagonist Shaunak (Rajkumar Rao,) albeit in marginal ways to highlight the tragedy of his circumstantial isolation from the rest of the world.
Yaadein, shot in Black-and-White is the soliloquy of a man who comes home to find that his wife and son are not at home, he assumes that they have left him and reminiscences his life with them, and scared of his life without them, he regrets his past indiscretions. This was not a survival film by any stretch of imagination.
A survival film directed by Raj Kumar Gupta was Aamir (2008) with Rajen Khandelwal portraying the protagonist who is challenged to do things he would never have done unless he was threatened by faceless, anonymous enemies that if he did not, his entire family would be killed.
The film rested almost entirely on the shoulders of Rajen Khandelwal supported by small cameo characters on his endless journey dotted with electric suspense and chilling thrills around every corner. However, the brilliance of Aamir as an excellent survival-suspense-adventure story is somewhat undercut by the fact that it is said to be a very good ‘copy’ of Cavite (2006), an American-Filipino film with a suspiciously similar storyline.
Trapped is a completely different cup of tea. It belongs to the survival genre of films, a relatively unexplored idea in cinema that relates to stories of people physically challenged to overcome blocks in the way of what could be certain death created by natural or manmade calamities, or, circumstantial situations. So far as survival films straddle stories exploring natural and accidental calamities such as Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno and in Bollywood, films like The Burning Train. The commercial risks in such productions are not very high if the film is technically brilliant. But when there is just a single individual physically facing a no-exit situation for no fault of his or anyone else’s, the stakes are really very high. Trapped falls within this category, and some more…..
The story is a almost a one-liner. Shaunak (Rajkumar Rao), a simple, slightly timid boy wearing glasses is smitten by a female colleague in his office. He wishes to marry her though she is already engaged. So, he goes off flat-hunting on an empty pocket with promises to “pay later.” A stranger offers him just the kind of place he is looking for. An empty but furnished flat on the 32nd floor of a high-rise called Swarg.
A slight memory slip traps him inside that empty flat with the flat’s keys dangling dangerously on the door outside. He forgets to take the keys off the lock outside when he can hear his cell-phone ringing inside and steps in to retrieve it. The high-rise is lying entirely vacant for two long years and the doddering old watchman is hard of hearing, cannot read English and is glued to the music on his cell or on his transistor so Shaunak’s cries of help land him nowhere.
But to call Trapped just a “survival” film would be wrong because it goes far beyond just dealing with the protagonist trying to save himself as he gradually learns that unless he finds some way of escape, death is certain. It is a multi-layered film placing exacting and extremely challenging demands on the actor who has to gradually move from hope to despair in different degrees with sudden surges of hope rising only to fade away almost at once.
As no one resides in the building and the watchman is not aware of this young man having been ‘smuggled in’ by someone, the power and water supply is intermittent and limited. A time comes when the cell phone refuses to cooperate, the lights go on and off and the water supply slowly dwindles to zero leaving Shaunak thirsty, hungry and scared till he reaches the edge of panic. Shaunak’s emotions are stripped completely of getting his lady love when survival becomes the biggest question.
He uses every instrument he can to try and break the door – a table fan, a steel cart, his feet, his hands hurting himself badly and when nothing works, he turns angry with himself, with the situation he is in and with the world he lives in. His next ingenuous strategy is to cut out cardboard pieces from empty packing boxes to write “Help” notes in English with toothpaste, shaving cream, leftover bits of paint from empty drums and when all this is exhausted, he rekindles his wound to draw blood and write the notes. Nature plays its devious role in this survival game because the notes fly away as the wind takes them so far that no one notices them. The watchman catches one of them but he cannot read English so he casts it away.
The camera plays around very imaginatively with the insularity of a city like Mumbai within an era of globalization where high-rises are built all around but many of them are left empty. D.O.P. Siddharth Diwan perhaps had his most demanding and rewarding assignment with this film. He pans the camera skywards to follow the trajectories of the small notes Shaunak throws out that flitter in the breeze and land everywhere but where they should.
There are birds’-eye-view shots of the skyscrapers outside with a small old building with its chipped-china mosaic terrace, standing in relief to offer a glimpse of the fading Mumbai and then moving in the distance to capture the lush green trees, juxtaposing the outside world of freedom with Shaunak’s inside world in captivity. But there are a few visuals that are both bizarre and grotesque that we find difficult to watch. The running time should ideally have been 90 minutes. 103 minutes is a bit too stretched because some shots appear repetitive and tend to drag the narrative.
Shaunak looking through the grills at the world outside, captured partly in silhouette, Shaunak trying to crack the rails of the grill with his make-shift knife from a blade of the table fan, Shaunak throwing away his cell in anger and then trying to mend it again, or, putting fire to the mattresses and pillows to draw attention and then withdraw in panic when the fire begins to spread within the room, or, when, with the cheer of a child, he happily takes a shower with the rain water he has collected in empty drums of paint, the cistern he has dragged out of its anchor in the bathroom, or, croaking his voice with cries of help that no one can hear from below, or, Shaunak stretching his simple, ordinary intellect to the farthest to find out some way out of his Life-or-Death situation.
A woman who comes to put her washing and take it away on the terrace of a low-level building nearby and picks one “Help” note. But the watchman insists that no one stays in the building so she throws it and walks away mystified. He then pulls off the television set from its anchor and throws it to draw attention. Nothing happens. His packet of biscuits is empty and his water bottle is squashed completely of whatever little water it contained but the tap has run dry.
There is little dialogue in the first half of the film after Shaunak is trapped but soon, Rousseu’s insistence on man being a social animal comes flashing back as the young man makes friends with his only rival in his fight for food – a mouse. He begins a one-sided conversation of the mouse more to keep himself occupied as his mind is filled with thoughts of freedom.
A point comes when thirsty, tired, hungry and weak, he begins to hallucinate about all kinds of food – edible and not edible though he is a strict vegetarian by faith and by practice. There is am amazing clip from some television adventure and travel show that steps into Shaunak’s hallucinating mind, when a young man appears out of the greenery of a forest holding forth on what to eat and why to just survive when all sources of food and water have dried out and you are lost in the forests.
The sound design (Anish John) vacillates between silence where visuals take precedence with close-ups of Shaunak’s face lying on the ground, one of his spectacle frames patched up with a piece of rag, or, looking out of the window to locate the last vestiges of hope. The sounds of pure survival come across when he is pulling off the table fan, dashing it to the floor, again and again both in anger and in an attempt to bring it apart, banging against the door or the balcony grills again and again, his desperate cries for help, furniture dragged against the littered floor create an unique sound map to evoke human emotions like distress, pain, desperation and disgust not to be experienced in other genres of cinema. This soundscape in touchingly dotted with the almost muted background score by Alokananada Dasgupta that comes like poetic justice with the discordant sounds of survival.
Nitin Baid’s editing occasionally moves back in time to catch Shaunak with girlfriend Noor in different eating places offering oblique references to the edges of starvation he is pushed to. Trapped ideally brings out the spirit of the story that could as easily be mine or yours as it is Shaunak’s .One cannot imagine Trapped without Rajkumar Rao playing Shaunak, an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances from which there is possibly no escape. He is the hero and also the villain who gets trapped for his own slight lapse in memory- he forgets to pull the keys out of the door outside before stepping in to retrieve his cell-phone. The wind does the rest and pushes the door shut.
Trust Vikramaditya Motwane who made the very off-beat Udaan (2010) followed by that soft, subtle and touching love story Lootera (2013) to take a big leap into the survival genre film that not only takes up a rare genre but also has all the stakes loaded against the possibility of a disaster at the box office. Survival films are fine if the challenge to survive physically against odds that threaten you with death at any moment.
Jeann Baudrillard, the French philosopher who created the Theory of the Object-Value System to extend the use of any object from having value-in-use and value-in-exchange to apply it to the relationship of objects with human characters would perhaps have invented a further argument to establish how objects of everyday use can be turned into weapons of attack, survival, self-defence and every other thing other than what these objects are meant to be used for.
This reinforces the ingenuity of men and women when placed in extenuating circumstances where Life does not offer an exit route.
Very well-done, Motwane for making a film that has zero entertainment value but has abundant cerebral value that appeals to your power of concentration while watching a film - any film.