There is a plethora of films with immersive screenplays that can sweep the viewers through an emotional roller coaster during their runtime. But how many such films leave a lasting impact on our minds and continue to haunt us for a long time? Very few, right! The 2014 Malayalam film Ottaal (English: The Trap) belongs to this minuscule club of cinematic gems that are achingly beautiful, sublime and poetic yet devastating in their aftertaste.
Based on Anton Chekhov’s tragic short story “Vanka”, Ottaal follows the lives of the recently orphaned Kuttappayi (Ashanth K. Sha) and his grandfather (Kumarakom Vasudevan) in the Kerala village of Kuttanad. After the suicide of his debt-ridden farmer parents, the eight-year-old Kuttappayi begins to live with his grandfather who is tasked with rearing ducks in the backwaters by Mesthri (Shine Tom Chacko). A beautiful bond develops between the grandpa and grandson as they live, eat, and sleep together. There are endearing moments in the film where the two indulge in playful role-reversals, like Kuttappayi narrating bedtime stories to his grandpa. The multiple National Award-winning director Jayaraj (Desadanam, Kaliyattam, Shantham) provides an enchantingly picturesque backdrop that complements the pure and benevolent nature of the protagonists. Kuttanad’s almost divine scenery – the lush green wetlands, water bodies, flock of ducks, migratory birds – is breathtaking and subtly nudges us to discover that the true essence of living lies in being one with nature.
In Ottaal, Jayaraj intelligently uses metaphors in dialogues that connote important life lessons and indicate the trajectory of Kuttappayi’s narrative. For instance, in an initial scene, Kuttappayi’s grandpa explains weaver birds’ nests to him and how the parent birds migrate away with the newborns after the eggs have been hatched. An innocent Kuttappayi asks him, “What about the newborns without parents?” In a later scene, the grandpa uses a hen to hatch the eggs of ducks but once the ducklings come out, he shoos away the hen as it will try to destroy them once it realizes they are not chickens. The ducklings will have to learn to survive on their own. And so will Kuttappayi!
As the grandfather’s health begins to deteriorate, he wishes to send Kuttappayi away into the custody of someone else for a secure future. Kuttappayi is coaxed into being sent to a far-off school but in reality, he will be taken to a fireworks factory as a child labourer. An exceptionally talented Kuttappayi, who used to help his rich school-going friend Tinku excel in arts and crafts, is denied the opportunity to learn in a school. Such is the tragic fate of millions of poor children across the world who lose their childhood to a cruel world that exploits them.
Ottaal not only excels in character development, screenplay and visual imagery but also delivers some brilliant background music that deepens the emotions evoked in the frames. The highlight of the film, however, is its sole song, “Aa Manathilirrunnu”, composed by Padma Bhushan Kavalam Narayana Panicker. A lament sung with an exceptionally heartbroken voice, the song soulfully expresses the grief of the grandfather while parting from Kuttappayi. Kumarakom Vasudevan, a fisherman in real life, touches your heart with his minimal expressions as the wounded grandfather who tries hard to repress his emotions. His hardened and wrinkled old face suits the role perfectly as his demeanour personifies a man who has struggled and endured hardships in real life.
Why do we glorify ‘development’ and commercialisation that consume so much of our energy when happiness can be effortlessly found in nature? A character in the film who paddles the water wheel questions Kuttappayi on his desire to study in a school. Kuttappayi replies saying he wants to learn how to add and subtract. The wheelman says, “No matter how much one adds or subtracts in life, in the end, what remains with us is nothing!”
A winner of several top awards in India and abroad, including the Crystal Bear at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, it is surprising and saddening that a masterpiece like Ottaal remains an obscure watch even for most Malayalis. Many of my cinephile friends who have devoured the best regional films from the past decade had not even heard of the film! Perhaps its being considered a children’s film is why it never gained much popularity. But make no mistake, this is a highly mature film with a very deep message from Jayaraj. Through the portrayal of warm and generous relationships amidst an abundance of natural beauty, the director wants us to reflect on and question our idea of a wholesome life.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.