The first time I saw Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj I was immediately taken in by the real and relatable family dynamics. On the second viewing I can’t get over the overriding harmony of her frames in dealing with something as discordant and disruptive as death.
There is mellow touch with which Sharma stirs up a brooding, disquieting and unsettling mood. An underlying touch of calmness, even in the most agitation-ridden situations, renders them all the more eerie. But then ferocity and assertion of power come on display all of a sudden, in a banal moment like learning how to drive a car. And then just as unexpectedly the throwaway humour punctures the tension. The music keeps perfect pace with and adds to the changing ambience and the flow of visuals.
- Director: Konkona Sen Sharma
- Starring: Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Tilottama Shome, Gulshan Devaiah, Tanuja, Om Puri, Ranvir Shorey, Jim Sarbh
- Run time: 110 minutes
- Storyline: Set in the 1970s, in McCluskieganj, Jharkhand, the film centres on a shy, young man who is a misfit amongst his rambunctious family.
It’s rare to find a debut that is so marvellously measured, where each element of filmmaking is staggeringly synchronous with the other. Like a finely-tuned musical instrument. Take the well observed characters and relationships, or the incredible detailing in the production and costume design—in evoking a place, period and its people. But never once does the total scream aloud and tell the viewer: notice us. It’s all about being well-woven together in bringing alive a McCluskieganj of the 70s that is comfortingly lived in yet disturbingly melancholic.
Then there’s the ensemble, the extended family and friends—Shutu (Vikrant Massey), Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), Tani (Arya Sharma), Anupama Aunty (Tanuja), Bakshi Uncle (Om Puri), Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Brian (Jim Sarbh)—on a vacation in McCluskieganj. All might be happy and normal on the surface but soon stealthy passions come to play, spied upon just as furtively.
Sharma doesn’t overstress on anything, believes in the strength of the implied than labouring a point. A look, a glance can say it all. A piece of sponge cake stolen from a grave portends the future. Showing him wear the pullover of his dead father is enough to highlight Shutu’s troubled mind – he hasn’t quite come to terms with his grief at losing a parent. The constant company he keeps—of a child, Tani—insinuates his alienation from and the loneliness he feels within the adult world. A world that badgers, bullies and mocks him with its everyday cruelty and at times unintentional insensitivity. That gives him false hope of love and then betrays him. And also forces him to betray another. It is about not being able to belong and conform, about being a distant observer than an active participant in the world that wouldn’t take long to forget him.
It’s also all about the so-called virtues of manhood and what it means when you don’t live up to those ideals. It’s about how the expectations of patriarchy and masculinity can mess up and ruin men themselves. A special word then for Vikrant Massey, the beautiful boy (“you could have been a girl” Mimi tells him in the film) who lays bare the innocence, sensitivity, vulnerability and torment of Shutu with such fluidity that it’s hard to imagine any other actor owning the role.