Trapped: Alone in a crowd
Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped asks us a few pointed questions about the loneliness of urban existence. He does it by mooring his film in a genre that Bollywood has never fully embraced: the survival movie
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi
Say you are a man forced to eat rats to keep yourself alive. How would you evaluate your existence? What if your entire community subsists on rats? For Musahars in Bihar, eating rodents is a way of life. During the rice harvesting season, members of the community trap rats from the field. The diet for the rest of the year consists of snails, fishes and cockroaches. What if you are a city slicker forced to eat pigeons and cockroaches to survive because you are trapped in a high-rise apartment? Would you be as adept at surviving? Probably not. When an entire community is in a miserable living situation, it is reality. When Rajkummar Rao is in that situation, you are probably watching the movie Trapped.
Unlike Hollywood that has a long tradition of grim survival movies, the Hindi film industry has for long eschewed the genre altogether. Trapped follows the same tropes that have already been well-established by movies like All is Lost and Gravity. The central plot-device of the aforementioned movies goes something like this: a single individual finds himself or herself in a life-threatening situation with no possibility of outside help or rescue. The threat does not come from other humans but rather from the immediate environment itself. Paradoxically, the protagonist is trapped in a confined space in the midst of a vast wasteland. The only hope for survival resides in the hero's own abilities, perseverance and daring. A narrative like this has its underpinnings in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe. The dissonance arises from the fact that Crusoe was trapped on a deserted island but was in no immediate danger of death.
In Cast Away, which is effectively a modern day adaptation of Crusoe, the threat to the main character is that of losing his sanity. It took nearly 10 years for Hollywood to figure out that if you were to add the element of time ticking by, you could potentially turn the whole genre on its head.
Take Danny Boyle’s excellent 127 hours. Not only is the movie based on a real-life incident, it has all the trappings of a classic survival movie. In theory, the movie should not work. It’s about a man trapped by a boulder for a long amount of time. A promising plot premise could have very quickly turned into a study in boredom. Except that it didn’t. Boyle uses the movie to repeatedly hammer home the point that no man is an island and the real-life Aron Ralston (on whom the movie is based) nearly died because he failed to communicate with the people he loved.
Trapped tweaks that philosophical snare a little bit. What if your isolation is not because of a failure to communicate but because you have no one to communicate with? If you were an immigrant worker to an urban metropolis who were to go missing, would anyone notice? For millions of people living in a city like Delhi, trying to eke out a living one day at a time, the answer would probably be in the negative.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s movie also touches upon the very real theme of disconnect. We all know of the restless feeling that seems to rush into our minds when our internet is dead and we have no access to any media whatsoever to stimulate our perennially addled minds. That feeling of being alone that magically amplifies itself every single time we have to sit in an empty room and stare at a ceiling. In Trapped, love is offered as an antidote to that feeling and yet it is love itself that leads Rajkummar Rao’s Shaurya into the hell of involuntary solitary confinement.
During the film’s 105-minute runtime, Shaurya navigates a series of obstacles, many of which we take for granted in our daily lives. Devoid of water, food and electricity and locked in a 35th floor flat that he can’t seemingly escape from, Shaurya has to figure out how to keep himself alive until he can figure out a way to escape his metaphorical skyscraper coffin. It is here that the viewer gets a glimpse of Shaurya’s inventiveness. He devises a make-shift rain water harvesting contraption out of the flush tank of his toilet to store water. To avoid starving to death he uses the elastic of his underwear as a makeshift catapult to kill pigeons. Here’s the catch though. Shaurya is a staunch vegetarian. In a hilarious flashback that nails the quirky rationalisations that vegetarians adopt to avoid eating meat, Shaurya is seen telling the woman he is dating why being a vegetarian is morally superior. This is one of the few moments of humour and levity that grace this otherwise taut and grim tale of survival. There is also a rat who will surely remind movie buffs of Castaway’s Wilson. There is a slight subversion again at play here. Unlike Wilson, the rat and Shaurya do not get along instantly. If nothing else there is an element of musophobia involved. By tapping into a human fear and failing and at the same time depicting how that fear can make way for compassion and companionship, the film perhaps succeeds in having its best moment.
If nothing else, Motwane’s film is a fitting allegory to the loneliness that infects most urban lives. Even in a crowd, we are all alone.