Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Writer: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Cast: Karamana Janardanan Nair, Sharada, Jalaja
Film is centered around a family in post-feudal Kerala who are finding it difficult to come to grips with their new reality. It consists of three siblings with the eldest being a very lazy and patriarchal bachelor guy called Unni (Karamana) who is also prone to paranoia and cowardice. The second one is a middle-aged spinster (Sharada) and the youngest one is a tutorial going comparatively modern girl (Jalaja). Over the course of the film we learn that they also have a married sister who is the eldest among them and is making demands for their assets to be partitioned. We find that the dynamics in the house itself is such that the character played by Sharada has become like a maid to her other siblings and is often taken for granted. Rats getting trapped is a recurring motif in the film and by the end we realize that it is a metaphor for the trapped existence of the characters played by Karamana and Sharada who are caught between two worlds.
Film actually begins on a funny note as the three characters are chasing a rat in near darkness. Then there is a sequence in which the youngest sister is seen dusting off an old rat-trap and she demonstrates how a rat will get trapped using her hands and this is done in a very Hitchcockian fashion. Then she is shown taking the first rat that is trapped to a pond in order to drown and kill it. The sequence is set to a very distinctive and foreboding background music and it is recurring sequence in the film. Towards the end we see that instead of rat, a very sick Sharada is taken to the pond and during the end sequence it is Karamana being taken. Karamana is totally dependent on others for his existence and he shows fuck all gratitude for it. He represents the exploitative feudal land lord but since feudalism has ended, he is exhibiting it towards his younger sister who lives very much like a slave. The exploitation is not outright cruel but it is just that he takes his privileged position of being the patriarch for granted and his obliviousness when behaving in a thoroughly selfish manner is utmost pathetic. The youngest sister (Jalaja) is also lazy in the modern sense and don't let herself be exploited by her two eldest siblings. She has come to grips with the new reality and takes bold steps to escape from the tharavadu (household). After that, Sharada falls sick and the only concern that Karamana exhibits is regarding how he will get fed. Sharada is taken by the villagers, presumably to the hospital, but the scene is like one of the rat sequences which finally cuts to the pond. Finally the reclusive Karamana is forced out and thrown to the pond as if he cannot bring himself to commit suicide so that he can also escape from his trapped rat life. These last two sequences in the film could very well be symbolic in the sense that both these characters are so meek that they cannot even take the initiative to end their own lives.
It was 'Elippathayam' that first brought international recognition for Adoor as it received an award from BFI (British Film Institute). It was also screened at Cannes in the Un Certian Regard, which is certainly a big deal for a film from India. It reminded me of Todd Solondz films which can best be described as social satire of the darkest kind and usually features very cringy characters and situations. The performances from both Karamana and Sharada are excellent and I was surprised that they didn't get national awards for it. They are ably supported by rest of the cast. Film is medium paced and the directorial flourishes during the opening scenes grabs your attention immediately. Nothing is spoon-fed to the audience and we will learn gradually about all the characters. It is something that I enjoy in films since it makes the experience cerebral. To sum up, it is one of the best films I have seen from Malayalam and is widely considered as Adoor's best film.