Elippatthayam tells the story of a family at a particular time in India’s history.It is set within the confines of a sprawling but slightly decrepit taravad or a traditional feudal home in Kerala, that very strange and and wonderful strip of land that is somehow as unique as is possible in any geography of India without being foreign.The storyteller is Adoor Gopalakrishnan, an all time great filmmaker from India.The chief protagonist is Unni (Karmana), a landlord who has enslaved himself to his status and refuses to acknowledge that the world outside has changed and his way of life has become utterly irrelevant.
The film opens with a rousing soundtrack of the beating of drums, to which is set a sequence of a field rat being hunted. The rat gets away but a wooden rat-trap is brought out of the attic and this time the rats oblige by taking the bait. Unni watches all this as his two younger sisters Rajamma( Sarada) and Sridevi (Jalaja) go about this activity. Unni is not married and he is not interested in getting his sisters married either, that would lead to a division of property according to Kerela’s matrilineal system which spawned a culture of intermarriage among cousins to keep the wealth within the family.But perhaps his reasons are much more simple and damning.It may be just too much bother and will result in his most efficient unpaid servant Rajamma being taken away from him.
Is Unni merely a product of the environment that he was raised in or has he made poor choices in his life or does he even have the aptitude for any kind of decision making at all?The natural reaction for Unni would have been to adapt and change with the changing world.As the film progresses we see Unni loose his grip on the household and the external world take over, after all inaction is a form of action only unto a point and then it becomes completely self limiting.He is physically and mentally impotent, he breaks out in cold sweat at the advances of a low caste woman offering her body to him and refuses to deal with thieves who are taking away the precious few coconuts that his estate yields.
It is very interesting how Adoor leaves us to interpret things.For example Rajamma suffers from abdominal pain.To me it may be early onset of menopause for a woman who has been denied a married life by her selfish brother.There is a scene where Rajamma and Sridevi look up to see an aeroplane and after Sridevi elopes Rajamma sees one again and this time its a traumatic experience for her.Now the film does not tell us with whom Sridevi has eloped, she has a crush on her school teacher but to me it appears that she may have eloped with the estate managers son who is now working in the Gulf.When the estate managers son comes to meet the family Unni is very curt with him and dismisses him as a person doing manual labour in the Gulf.This was the time when migration to the Gulf started from Kerala and Unni’s scorn may be representative of the prevailing attitudes.
The end of this film as most of Adoor’s films needs some work on the part of the audience.The closing sequence brings the film to a full circle.It is filmed brilliantly except for the closing shot of the film which could have been better crafted. Adoor says Elipatthayam is a film about how we don’t act naturally to the world around us.There is a beautiful shot at the end of the film seen from the point of view of Unni, who has shut himself up in his house in a self inflicted solitary confinement, the rat who has trapped himself in his own house. We see a child stray into his courtyard and the mother comes rushing in and yanks her away, as if the house is haunted by Unni’s very real ghost.This is a natural reaction from the mother but earlier when a cow strays into his courtyard, Unni who is reading a newspaper is too lazy to shoo it away, relying instead on Rajamma to do the needful.
A few days back I saw another important film in Indian cinema- Maya Darpan(1972) by Kumar Shahani. This is considered to be India’s first formalist film and Shahani had trained under the legendary formalist French director Robert Bresson. He tells a similar story of a man trapped in his colonial past when he was an important part of the the British bureaucracy. He feels his talent was appreciated by the colonial masters but is ignored by his fellow Indians in an Independent India.He locks himself up in his huge palatial house and refuses to interact with the outside world.His son has left him, his daughter feels claustrophobic in the house and his old widowed sister has nowhere else to go.While the setup of Elipatthayam and Maya Darpan are similar, Elipatthayam works because it is very rooted in the soil of Kerala while Maya Darpan pays more attention to its style than to its content.
The figure of a landlord falling victim to his vanity is not new in Indian cinema, the most memorable being the character played by Chabi Biswas in Satyajit Rays masterful Jalshaghar (The Music Room) but Elipathayam is a more complex and nuanced work.The cinema of Adoor is unique in many ways.The cinematic idiom that he has evolved is austere and cerebral, challenging the audience constantly, offering no easy explanations for the actions of his characters and is always full of sharp commentary on society. Adoor uses everyday chores in a repetitive way to establish a pattern but each time the reaction of the characters to the same situations changes in a subtle way.This deliberate slow pacing combined with the minimalism within the frame gives the viewer the latitude for contemplation.
This is the third film by Adoor after Swayamvaram and Koodiyattam and his first colour film.A serious and careful filmmaker like him take uses colour very carefully and precisely especially in the costume department.The film is beautifully shot and is filled with several complex and precise compositions.The house is a character in the film and is captured in many shades.It is a huge sprawling house but as the film progresses it seems to contract in size and there is a sense of claustrophobia for the audience as its walls close in on Unni.
India’s pre eminent film critic Chidananda Das Gupta calls Adoor the Kerala Coconut.His work has a tough exterior and inside lies a powerful absence.This absence is the absence of easy answers. The story which provides the substrate for the ideas is like the sliver of white flesh in a tender coconut. Adoor’s style favours a kind of reticence, he prefers to observe daily life within a often static mid-shot, framed by severe lines, at eye level, with all distraction carefully stripped away so that we can concentrate on what he wants us to see.This is somewhat similar to the Japanese cinema of Ozu and Kurosawa and his leaning towards slightly formalist constructs owns something to his background in Kathakali, the age old dance theatre of Kerala where the performers are completely hidden behind their elaborate costumes and make-up, which also has a natural kinship to the Japanese Noh theatre.
Adoor’s active distancing from Marxism which holds sway over much of Kerela’s intelligentsia and the art establishment has made his cinema very unique.He is drawn to Gandhian values and ideology and Elipatthayam is the most Gandhian of his films.His use of Unni’s household as a perfect contrast to a Gandhian ashram, his oblique commentary on the caste system, women’s rights and the moral implications of inaction tell us about his political leanings. His next film Mukhamukham becomes a powerful indictment of the failures of communism despite all the commentary to contrary provided by Adoor himself.This is a very interesting example of how an artists creation transcends his intension and acquires a life of its own.
#original DVD of this classic is available from http://www.secondrundvd.com featuring an excellent interview with the director which you can watch right here.