Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped is an allegory about present-day Mumbai as well as a lesson in screenplay deconstruction. The nail-biting drama sets narrative and philosophical snares for its lead character Shaurya, pushing him towards harm’s way ever so often to see how much he, the crew, and the audience can endure.

For the bulk of the film’s 105 minutes, Shaurya navigates the equivalent of an obstacle course within the confines of the apartment in which he has been inadvertently locked. Victory is fleeting, and sparks of hope are quickly extinguished. Some of Shaurya’s tribulations could have been dispensed with in the interests of a tighter narrative, but Motwane mercilessly keeps his finger pressed to the wound, expertly evoking sighs and screams at just the right places.

Some of the snares are foretold in the sly opening sequence, in which Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) nervously woos his colleague Noorie (Geetanjali Thapa) at the travel agency where they work. The movie title comes right in the middle of Shaurya’s victory in winning over Noorie, who is engaged to be married.

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Trapped.

Desperate to rent a house where he can live with Noorie, Shaurya moves into a 35th-floor apartment in a building that doesn’t have municipal clearances. When Shaurya gets locked into the boxy flat with grilled windows for days without water, food or electricity, his experience demonstrates that Mumbai is indeed a concrete jungle where a trap can lie halfway between the ground and the sky. Reverse shots amply demonstrate Shaurya’s diminutiveness in comparison to the low-rises and chawls that lurk below his building, appropriately called “Swarg” (heaven).

The writing by Amit Joshi and Hardik Mehta, and Motwane’s direction, have a Lego set quality. Shaurya uses every element in the barely furnished apartment as a weapon towards his freedom. A rat drops by, pigeons flutter in, and a cockroach becomes a metaphor for life itself.

But Shaurya is mostly alone, and since he is played by Rajkummar Rao, he becomes the movie’s thumping heart. Rao’s talent has been amply demonstrated in his previous films, and it reaches its zenith with Trapped. Despite inanimate objects and mute creatures to play off against, Rao brilliantly and effortlessly transforms the location and the movie into a battlefield of emotions. Shaurya wholly earns his empathy, one doughty move at a time. Since neither director nor actor embraces melodrama and sentimental short-cuts, Shaurya becomes a striking symbol of the Mumbai resident’s struggle to rattle the invisible cage in which he is imprisoned along with millions of others.

Rajkummar Rao in Trapped.
Rajkummar Rao in Trapped.

It sometimes appears that Mumbai cannot accommodate any more residential towers and office blocks. The megapolis is a byword for cheek-by-jowl existence, and the high-rises that have been shooting through the horizon in recent years are cynical proof that when the ground is packed, the only way to grow is upwards.

Motwane brilliantly upends the idea that a sublime existence awaits those who wish to rise above the clutter. The higher Shaurya goes, the closer he gets to hell – most vividly demonstrated in the scene when he first enters his assumed paradise and takes in the view with a satisfied grin.

What he is actually seeing, and what Motwane dexterously demonstrates, is a nightmarish vision of present-day Mumbai. The city is a silent member of the cast. It gives Shaurya the power to dream, but bares its teeth from beyond the grilled windows through which he yells for help. His screams ricochet through the air, and he learns the hard way that in Mumbai, you are well and truly on your own even in the middle of a crowd.

Mumbai isn’t the only villain of the piece. Geetanjali Thapa’s Noorie is a bit of a tease, never quite returning Shaurya’s ardour in full measure and never quite shedding her share of the blame. In King Kong, it was “beauty killed the beast”. In Trapped, Shaurya’s endurance test is the result of falling in love. The big “what if” in this meticulously written and directed film isn’t “What if Shaurya hadn’t left his key in the lock?” It is “What if he hadn’t lost his heart in the first place?” The city is hell, and the Devil is disguised as a woman.