Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Some weird ways of looking at Vikramaditya Motwane's Trapped

[Since everyone has reviewed this film already, here’s a bullet-pointed “anti-review”]

– Here is one way of describing the plot of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped. Man makes his way to the top of a skyscraper, spurred mainly by love. Gets in deep trouble when he’s up there. As his situation comes home to him, he grunts, whimpers, makes monkey sounds, jumps up and down, waves frantically at things. But he is alone, severely restricted in his options. Eventually he gets down – climbing tentatively, painfully down the side of the building – and returns to the reassuring (urban) jungle he had been plucked out of.

Does that sound like King Kong with a happy ending? I think so.

If that sounds facetious, bear with me for a bit. (And for those who ask silly questions like “But did the filmmakers really intend this?”, I absolve Motwane and his writers Amit Joshi and Hardik Mehta of all responsibility for my feverish interpretations.)

The famous, and still startling, image of Kong the giant ape atop the Empire State Building (representing the peak of human progress in the early 1930s when the original film was made) is often seen as alluding to the conflict between Id and Superego, between our primitive impulses and the modern world which keeps those impulses in check. Motwane’s film deals, in macabre and funny ways, with how close our “savage” side is to the “civilized” one, and the many overlaps and intersections between the two. (Surface appearances aside, which is the real savage in the Kong climax: the lovelorn ape, or the sleek, unfeeling planes that shoot him down?)

Trapped is a film about contrasts: for instance, the gap between being part of society – with its shackles and superficial niceties – and being free to “be ourselves” but only because we are terrifyingly alone. The first few minutes give us a well-scrubbed Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao) sitting at his work-desk, trying to stay composed when he calls the girl he likes and hesitantly asks her out. There is the sense that deep emotions are being reined in by the demands of being restrained, not seeming too eager, not moving too fast (being un-ape-like). But later, once he’s trapped in his high apartment, running out of time, he becomes a neo-caveman, using fire as if discovering it for the first time (in a city where neon lights blink through the night, mocking him from a distance), treating a sleek plasma TV as something that is easily dispensable (remember Kong knocking off the Empire State Building antenna).

– But being in an ivory tower (or on a mountaintop, or on a deserted skyscraper) also means you are cut off from the bustle of life, from the experience of being amidst people, including people you might find in “normal” life find problematic or intrusive. After a few days of his isolation, Shaurya has fantasy-yearnings about being in the Mumbai local again. This is the sort of crowded, sweaty, stinky experience that most people do NOT fantasize about. Who can blame him, though?

– On another level (get it? “Level”?), one can see Shaurya’s predicament as an allegory for upward mobility and the loneliness that may come with it; finding oneself in a new world, well out of one’s depth, and not knowing how to handle it. First he is told by laughing property agents that it would be impossible to get even a single-room flat for 15K rent; then he is led by a tout to a too-good-to-be-true space which is his for just that amount. He is clearly set up for a fall, and will end up in a situation not unlike that of the socialites in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, who are trapped in their dinner-party and can’t leave even when they want to. (Closer home, imagine Mukesh Ambani sitting all alone on the top floor of Antilla, unable to go anywhere.) There is a straight line from the scene in Bunuel’s film where sheep wander into the party area and are barbecued on the fireplace (“So close to civilization is the cave,” as Roger Ebert put it) to the scene where a retching Shaurya kills and eats a pigeon.

– Speaking of that pigeon-eating scene: what does it mean to be human as opposed to a primate? A social animal versus “just” an animal? No easy answers, and again, lots of overlapping. There is a flashback scene where Shaurya, sitting in a restaurant with his meat-eating girlfriend Noorie, makes a surprisingly eloquent case for vegetarianism. I say ‘surprisingly’ because in most ways she is more sophisticated than he is, and at the start of the conversation one is tempted to slot her as cool and progressive and slot him as conservative, tradition-bound, bullying – the sort of man who might covertly approve of people being assaulted for eating beef. (As we know from current real-world experience, one may ban slaughterhouses and be a villain still.) But at one point, watching Noorie eat her meal, I imagined her as one of those socialites in The Exterminating Angel, feathers and claws hidden in a purse. And suddenly it was no longer easy to stick labels.

– There is a very funny and unexpected reference to Charles Darwin, evolution and the survival of the fittest midway through the film. Darwin would appreciate that men – social animals – can revert to an ape-like state when left alone for long stretches of time. Movies have shown us this too: remember the snarl on Jack Nicholson’s face in The Shining; or Martin Sheen whirling about in his room on a drug trip early in Apocalypse Now; or Tom Hanks in Castaway, chattering at his volleyball the way Shaurya talks to the rat he has caught. When Shaurya climbs down the building in the end, it might glibly be described, in Darwinian terms, as a Descent of Man. But has he evolved into something better than he was at the start? Hard to say. 

[Related post: Hell is other people - on The Exterminating Angel]


  1. "one may ban slaughterhouses and be a villain still"

    So banning an illegal establishment makes you a villain? Sure you can argue if the law is a fine one in the first place. But when the law exists, it needs to be enforced.

    "at the start of the conversation one is tempted to slot her as cool and progressive and slot him as conservative, tradition-bound, bullying"

    Who is a "progressive"? And why would "progressives" be "cool"? And why would you slot "bullies" with "conservatives"? Cant "progressives" be "bullies"?

    Jai - I think it is a very "uncool" thing to engage in such "slotting". Very philistine :)

  2. Now here's an example of Progressive bullying -