Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.


Three Stories from India’s Rural Heartland

The regional cinema of India, away from the glitz of Bollywood and bustle of Westernized city-life and in the isolated patches of huts and farms of the country, revealed a cinema which is starting to examine village-life with a keen eye. This trend started a little while ago, but more and more filmmakers from India are turning their cameras to capturing tall fables, inspirational stories, and timely socio-economic examinations of life in the rural heartland of India’s villages. Here are three such movies which caught my attention this year:

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Umrika (Prashant Nair, 2016)

UMRIKA  (thick-accented Indian pronunciation of “America”)

Prashant Nair’s Umrika, like many independent Hindi features from India had an incredibly difficult time finding distribution because of the over-saturation of mainstream garbage cinema Bollywood continues to pump out like a vomiting gutter-pipe. Yet, thanks to the revelation of online-streaming media and the newly sprouting avenues as well as rave reviews from the Sundance Film Festival, Nair’s little film found a home in Netflix. God bless.

Umrika uses Indian village life’s conservative traditionalism and isolationism as a comedic device. Clearly Nair’s film is meant for the urban-dwelling Indian or the innocent Westerner discovering Indian cinema for the first time. As a village family’s oldest son ventures off to America (they call it, in their heavy Indian accent, “Umrika”), they fantasize about a land of plenty that they cannot even fathom. He sends back letters and photos of strange things incredibly alien to these isolated villagers. A scene shows them holding up a picture of a muscular meaty American beef cattle and comparing it to their own Indian gai comprised of just flimsy skin and bones. These comical moments are relatable because they create the dichotomy that we already hold in our minds between Umrika and the rural poor of India. However, once the son’s letters stop coming, we know something is wrong and the story shifts to a more urban environment as the younger son, Ramakand goes searching for him. Here all our prejudices of rural life are confronted with the corruption of money amongst the urban elite. The idea of Umrika changes from being a land of plenty to a myth shrouded by deceit and phoniness. Umrika is an innocent film, and its ambition exceeds its grasp, but it does get one thinking about how we define our place between where we come from and where we ultimately go?

Thithi (Raam Reddy, 2016)


THITHI  (English: “Funeral”)

Part of what made Raam Reddy’s debut film Thithi so compelling is its ability to give a real account of village life ongoings and procedures through a fully unfiltered lens. Yes, there have been other “village” films to come out, particularly those from Bollywood such as Peepli Live, but the forced media-eye encounter of that film was still a bit decorated and polished. Here, we get Karnataka in its utter primal state. Even the semblance of a love story that starts bubbling in the tall grass, one which could have gone the way to a orchestrated first class crescendo like in Manjule’s Sairat, instead only teases and taunts and ultimately fizzes out to the everyday monotony of village worklife. The film’s story centers around two sons of a dead centenarian. But the story or the ultimate capture of one son’s lie and the other’s redemption in the climax of the film is a narrative which trudges us along. Even the main character, Channegowda’s, horrific revelation of his father’s rape is a disturbing plot-twist that gives depth to his character, but is still a side-note in the cinematic landscape that Reddy paints with such an authentic brush. The real treasure lies in the minute details of a vibrant community that is hidden in the plains, away from an India quickly undergoing what the United States did in the late 1800’s. It is a nation on the cusp of something great… but there is still a life away from all of that, wandering aimlessly in the bushels, chugging a bottle of whiskey, just waiting to die.

Kothanodi (Bhaskar Hazarika, 2016)

KOTHANODI  (English: “River of Fables”)

Kothanodi might be the most disturbing Indian film I’ve ever seen. There have been unnerving films, like Kaun or Phobia and depressing films like Matrubhoomi, but Bhaskar Hazarika has tapped into something incredibly unique here. This film is weird, strange, and left utterly uncomfortable about the whole ordeal. Kothanodi is a film comprised of four mythical tales which revolve around a stream. A woman is followed by a mysterious fruit which she inexplicably gave birth to… a husband and his uncle kill a woman’s three children and bury them in the forest, but when the fourth one is born, she decides to take a stand… a young girl is left alone with her stepmother, whose mind is possessed by a demon… and a greedy couple plan to marry their daughter to a King Python in hopes the snake will bless her with fortune and riches.

This is a hard movie to shake because its stories are unrelentingly bleak. It’s also uncompromising in its regressive “village politics”. Many of these stories are old and their lessons may seem outdated in today’s age, yet its commendable Hazarika doesn’t bother to “adapt” them for a modern audience. He leaves them as is, a relic of the past and presents them as a “take it or leave it” situation.

The film isn’t a horror film, but it has a very unnerving feeling about it. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Hazarika is an avid fan of Kanedo Shindo because there are so many moments that bring back visions of a Onibaba or Kuroneko. The ominous music, rustling tall grass hiding and revealing characters and secrets, wild eyed possessed women and a disturbing entity brewing through each story. It’s a unique film in its ability to merge traditional Indian dramatization with a cold surrealism that is indescribable except for how it made me feel… uncomfortable.