Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Geetanjali Thapa
Trapped is a desperate film about a desperate man by, I presume, a very desperate director. It’s an explosion, an intense physical manifestation – of frustration, yes, but channeled and internalized in the best way possible. Vikramaditya Motwane’s previous film, Lootera, came out four years ago. That’s a long time. It’s more than a decade in young-talented-voice years, enough to make any restless, hyperactive storyteller feel as if he were locked in an empty flat high above a crowded city. The irony of it all. The cruel irony of being confined within the ambition of one’s own potential.
The noise from below, the numbing din from the dozens of filmmakers successfully exhibiting their vision, is so close at first, so annoying even. But it’s still just out of reach. Soon, just hearing the buzz, just watching them go about their ordinary lives and movies, can be strangely comforting. Oddly submissive, too. It becomes all about survival – as a producer, the manager instead of the band, the person looking from behind a grilled window. However, with this ‘little’ film, Motwane kicks down the metal sills and returns to a world he was – is – destined to inhabit. As the orchestrator, not the arranger.
The funny thing is any of his three feature-length films could be titled ‘Trapped’. This one is perhaps his most bare-knuckled allegory – much of whose essence is employed in the way he approaches the craft. It shows that it has been made by a person who has missed creating rather than showcasing. Since much of Trapped is a thrilling genre movie, a rare (or only?) Indian survival drama, and a humbling psychological portrait, much of its density lies within the skeleton.
Rajkummar Rao is Shaurya (which means ‘bravery’), yet he is inherently a safe chap – which is more of an antonym these days than ‘cowardly’. He is more of a follower than a thinker: a vegetarian, who first uses religion as an excuse before sounding like a defensive animal-rights activist. Even his perception of romance is derivative. The girl he likes from his office grabs his hand first, because he is too shy, too low-stakes.
He also fosters a crippling fear of rats (like the director), though not bigger than his fear of being alone, evident from his urge to jump directly from roommates to wife. Perhaps the bravest thing he’s done is migrating to Mumbai to lead a nice, middle-class life – a secure low-paying white-collar job, early marriage, a tiny house and the “idea” of a well-lived city life. He is naïve in a small-town way. It’s the only thing that explains his willingness to shift into a half-constructed building on basis of a shady stranger’s offer. At the beginning of Hansal Mehta’s CityLights, too, Rao was a married migrant similarly duped by a hustling ‘broker’; Motwane perhaps plays on this familiar mini-tragedy, this blinding desire to settle and trust, and takes it a step (or many floors) further.
Hardly any of this is actually narrated. The first fifteen minutes, and Rao’s remarkably textural body language, suggest it instead. And hence, obviously it’s this stubborn traditionalism that will spell his downfall. A last-gasp dash to ask for blessings from his favourite God becomes the difference. The power goes, his phone battery dies, and it takes us a few baffling minutes to calculate the mere possibility of such a horrifyingly simple scenario.
It can happen. If I were caught where he is, I’d laugh myself to death. Fortunately, Shaurya doesn’t have much of a sense of humour. He can be a hero, even though nobody’s watching. Bravery is his only choice. Resourcefulness is his only hope. Religion, idols, tradition, love, money – futile. While most newcomers to the city suffer from all sorts of crooked orientations into its environment – ‘robbing’ and ‘cheating’ stories that they perhaps recollect with a smile later in life – Shaurya’s integration is a sobering, life-altering reality. This is not something he will ever willingly reflect on. It isn’t something he will be proud of.
Though Trapped utilizes the stifling visual grammar of a Buried, an All Is Lost or a 127 Hours, it adheres to the narrative grammar and more ‘human’ emotional heft of a Cast Away: that is, you discover just enough about the man and his life to understand his impulses, and eventually root for him
Most solo survival thrillers count less on the actual validity of the situation, and more on the innate transformation of its hapless protagonist. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ becomes as important as what transpires in between. Though Trapped utilizes the stifling visual grammar of a Buried, an All Is Lost or a 127 Hours, it adheres to the narrative grammar and more ‘human’ emotional heft of a Cast Away: that is, you discover just enough about the man and his life to understand his impulses, and eventually root for him. We may not be shown what is happening outside (unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center), but we sense it. We sense it with each scream, each daft attempt to escape.
In each movie’s case, there’s the sad poetic providence of love (for an adventure, a job, a girl) being the cause – as well as driving force – of their unique entrapments. The ‘setup,’ the urgency of reasoning (trusting a shifty stranger, not informing his girlfriend, being a complete idiot basically) isn’t entirely convincing, but the heart wants what it wants. Shaurya’s growing angst is a result of what he has lost, as well as what he may end up losing forever; the fact that he saw some light before this darkness is what keeps us invested in his ugly journey. It isn’t supposed to be easy to watch. And it isn’t supposed to be an easy epiphany to handle that liberation, in this case, isn’t quite the same as freedom.
Tell a dying man that he has a lot to live for – and chances are he will embrace the nostalgia of his life’s incompleteness instead of its mundane completeness. Suddenly, a packed bus or paralyzing traffic jam will seem romantic, precisely because it’s all over. The difference being: characters like Shaurya have the opportunity to see the other side, too. He can lose hope, reminisce, make vows, change, crave and then survive, to test the legitimacy of those heightened cage-induced desires. Each time he fails at opening that door, or getting somebody’s attention, he forgets a little more about how mechanical his life really was. What he doesn’t perhaps realize yet is that the NRI-ish phrase, “I miss Mumbai’s local trains” is more of a reaction to homesickness, not a truth about it. Nobody actually misses those trains; we just miss the feeling of it, of heading somewhere, of belonging somewhere and doing something before and after it.
Thanks to Rao’s terrific commitment – on par with any of the greats in the aforementioned genre classics – Trapped acquires the unsettling, dire tone of its shackled face. He makes sure to do everything within the film for the first time; for example, you can’t exactly rehearse the ‘technique’ of clumsily yanking out a television set from its stand, or a fitted geyser from the wall. It has to look unpracticed and messy, which is why filming such actions at length without cuts conveys that typically patriarchal lack of handyman-ness. To say that he is this country’s finest living actor is an understatement. Nobody else could have harnessed such an inherent jitteriness to supplement a performance so continuous, so acute and nervy.
To say that he is this country’s finest living actor is an understatement. Nobody else could have harnessed such an inherent jitteriness to supplement a performance so continuous, so acute and nervy
While Tom Hanks’ post-traumatic avatar assumed a more existential, universal pokerfaced-ness in Cast Away, Rao’s is, in context of his regional relevance, a deeply personal one. The transformation is chastising, not eye-opening. His reflections may well be quasi-philosophical – what’s the point of literally surviving an ordeal only to figuratively survive a city? What’s the point of appreciating life only if it’s propelled by the idea of death? That we are convinced he can now think about such things is, in itself, this simple story’s most basic victory. Cynical perhaps, but only because this is Mumbai, a place that thrives on communication through – and not despite – its lack of space. Much like this extraordinary film it occupies.