Louis Wirth, in his essay ‘Urbanism As a Way of Life’ defines the ‘city’ as “a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of heterogeneous individuals…(with) the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintanceship, the segmentalization of human relations which are largely anonymous, superficial, and transitory…The pecuniary nexus tends to displace personal relations, and institutions tend to cater to mass rather than to individual requirements. The individual thus becomes effective only as he acts through organized groups.” All of the above features find their way into Vikramaditya Motwane’s recent release Trapped, starring Rajkumar Rao. The latest entry in the gritty genre of the survival drama, it is far from the idea of entertainment that popular cinema in India is obsessed with. Where most other films in the Hindi film industry celebrate the mindless, vapid consumer culture that is the lot of the urban population today, Trapped forces its protagonist as well as its audience to confront urbanism’s dark and debilitating reality.
The protagonist’s name, ‘Shaurya’, meaning bravery, is thrown into relief early in the film, where his instinctive fear of rats establishes him as a very ordinary, unheroic man. His impetuousness, carelessness and nearsightedness complete the hastily-drawn sketch of this very believable young working professional from the notoriously reckless, irresponsible, ‘quick-fix’ generation that is the optimistic Indian youth today. One may not easily identify with a guy who proposes marriage to a colleague after a moment of passion and follows it up with a ridiculous vow to rent an apartment the same day on his meagre savings to convince her. But one can uneasily recognize his ready agreement to an equally ridiculous, too-good-to-be-true underhand deal that procures for him an apartment for rent in an unoccupied high-rise building, from a visibly unscrupulous agent. True to consumerist ethos, he turns a blind eye to all the obvious defects behind the promise of the attractive new product that is his impressive new apartment. The events about to unfold in the film are foreshadowed further by the lack of communication between Shaurya and his family, and the uncaring nonchalance of his flatmates who shrug at his lie that he is leaving to visit his family. His workspace is one in a series of identical cubicles that oil the machinery of the corporate world. Not even is religion a source of faith in this world; he stuffs an image of the divine into his duffel bag as an afterthought, and in rushing to pray to it, he commits a series of mistakes that push him closer to his horrible ordeal. Here, it would be useful to recall Karl Marx’s theory of ‘alienation (or estrangement) of labour’ in capitalist societies, whereby, Man undergoes multiple forms of alienation—from the object that he produces, from the process of production, from himself, and from the community of his fellows.
And thus our ‘hero’ finds himself trapped, on an impossibly high floor of an otherwise unoccupied building (Swarg Apartments; sweet irony!), ‘guarded’ by a significantly partially-deaf and apathetic security person. The film does a reasonably good, though not a spectacular job, of evoking the sense of claustrophobia and despair that the usual survival thriller has to offer. But what establishes Trapped as a distinguished entrant in this genre, is its location. This is no unpopulated planet or a cruel nature’s trap, it is a very much manmade one, and symptomatic of the times we live in and our urban, disconnected, isolating lifestyles. Modern amenities and luxuries that we consider central to our metropolitan lives, unravel as the nightmares that they can easily become. Want doors that are tamper-proof? So be it. Want to tower above the whole city and enjoy an expansive view of your neighbourhood? Granted. Want the privacy and anonymity of the city slicker? There. To survive and escape, Shaurya cannot rely on addictions of modern technology powered by electricity, nor on the benevolence of strangers. He will learn to recognize the use value of objects, as opposed to fetishizing them. He will discover the resources of his body and his environment. He will also be at the mercy of natural elements—water, fire, wind. He will have to hone the precise skills that he is earlier shown lacking in—clear thinking, planning and above all, patience, to climb his way out of this one. Our protagonist does overcome his hysterical fear of rats, to the extent of making one his (parodic) Man-Friday. He also swallows his righteous vegetarianism and develops a hunter’s cunning, as he swallows something else.
Blood, urine, vomit—the human body is the visceral focal point of multiple lenses of unflattering attention, in close-up. Interestingly, the film gives us little access to the mental process of the protagonist. Except for a brief camaraderie with an uncomprehending rat, and delightfully trippy, hallucinatory sequences where the protagonist fantasizes about basic instincts like food, survival, intimacy, violence and the urge to reproduce (represented by a wildlife-show presenter, a sweaty, cramped bus and a gastronomic-fantasy-turned-nightmare), all we have to follow in the film, are his actions. These are his repeated escape and survival attempts, mostly failures, that range from the downright stupid to cringe-worthy, audacious and awe-inspiring. That, and the cries of “Watchman!” fluctuating from panicky, to hoarse, and then inarticulate, that mark the passage of time. Very little dialogue (for what dialogue is possible with a sole character?) and a largely ominous soundtrack, complete this severe film that refuses to blunt the blow. This film without an interval launches directly into a relentless assault upon our senses. The theme music is sinister, and incorporates sounds from his various escape attempts—the bang of the utensil, the sawing of the railing rod, the shattering of glass…Moreover, there is no conventional build-up, climax and resolution. The graph is mostly a precariously-sustained climax running for most of the film, testing the audience’s endurance as much as its protagonist’s.
At the end of the film, despite its predictable narrative closure, we, like the protagonist himself, are not really rewarded with a satisfying emotional closure, apart from the fact that now he learns to take a ‘no’ (where earlier everything was a matter of ‘jugaad’), face his fears and move on with his life. But this is no optimistic tale of survival “in a world fraught with perils of all kinds… (where) through the exemplary effort, cooperation, and bravery of individuals and groups, the social order, without which man would perish, is maintained against all threats to its stability”(Thomas Sobchack, ‘The Adventure Film’). The film chooses to end in a way that gives no indication of this being an un-repeatable occurrence or one that has taught any lessons to the societal arrangement that makes such a nightmare a mundane, overlooked affair, too puny in its grand scale of things, like the high-rise buildings dwarfing the lone man on the street. Shaurya will return to a different office, but the culture that has designed it stays the way it is. Earlier, his moment of recognition occurs when he talks out his feelings with his unusual interlocutor—“…sab behre hai neeche. Yahaan kisi ko sunai nahi deta hai, aur kya pata sunai bhi deta hai toh farq nahi padta” (Everybody down there is deaf. Here, nobody can hear anything and who knows, even if they can, they don’t care). This is reminiscent of various disturbing real-life cases in the recent past where people have willingly isolated themselves from the world outside their doors and eventually given up their lives.
Ultimately, Trapped is not about an isolated, unusual, improbable incident at all, rather it is a somewhat severe indictment of a deeper sense of entrapment, of which this is but an extreme manifestation. We watch it, not to feel good about ourselves, but to question the values that we hold dear—how we tend to underestimate ourselves and derive our sense of worth from the objects we own and how increasingly we find it difficult to forge meaningful relationships with people and communicate with them. For example, where in the beginning of the film Shaurya is shown talking to Noorie (Geetanjali Thapa) but not really listening to her, when he meets her at the end, words are no longer necessary for them to communicate. This film, unlike Motwane’s earlier fare, cannot boast of flamboyant cinematography like in Lootera, or the life-affirming bildungsroman that is Udaan, but offers instead, an honest, if imperfect and thoroughly uncomfortable refection of our lives today. We are to take it for the warning it is, and then go home and hug our families, call our friends, charge our phones, check our keys and be very careful in building the ‘swarg’ that is to be our dream home.