There’s a sense of gloom about Konkana Sen Sharma’s debut directorial, A Death In The Gunj. The film revolves around an elite Bengali family vacationing in a picturesque Bihari village. Even as the family members fill the air with laughter, music and youthful energy, there is a sense of foreboding hanging over their heads. An incident of death is waiting to happen, the title warns. The characters and plot points, many a time, fail to evoke intrigue, but this melancholic and eerie atmosphere that Konkana Sen constructs rather brilliantly, holds the film together.
The story is set in 1976, in a cold village named Mccluskieganj which proudly bears the imprints of the colonial era. A young married couple, Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Bonnie (Tilottama Shoma), is visiting their old parents, the Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja Mukherjee, who live in a beautiful mansion. Along with them are their little daughter Tania aka Tani (Arya Sharma), Nandu’s cousin Shuttu (Vikrant Massey), Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalkie Koechlin), and their distant relative, Vikram.
Among the lot, Shuttu is the odd one. He follows the others everywhere like a shadow, unable to open up to anyone or be at ease. Having lost his father just a few months ago, he hasn’t gotten over the grief. His way of embracing his father’s memories is by wearing the latter’s old sweaters. He refuses to visit his despondent and lonely mother who lives in a far away village. A shy loner, he failed his university exams recently – something that he hides from the people around him. His only sense of pride comes from the fact that he once used to be a bright student. You see him watching every member of the family through the corner of his eye, sometimes with a nervous suspicion. They pick on him, and insult him, treating him like a house pup. The only one who empathises with Shuttu’s unbearable loneliness is Tani who affectionately watches over him and gives him company. During the week spent in the sleepy village, the turbulence brewing inside Shuttu bursts and creates serious damages.
The proceedings are faintly reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant Iranian drama, About Elly. However, unlike the latter, A Death In The Gunj has a thoroughly predictable story-line. The characters reveal themselves in the initial sequences itself, and in the final scenes, they behave like you expected them to.
Mimi is desperate for the company of a man, and when she is spurned by Vikram, her old flame who got married recently to an old-fashioned girl from a rich household, she switches to the next best option – Shuttu. Vikram is arrogant, selfish and insensitive right from the beginning, and you don’t see anything else about him. Possibly because there isn’t any. Senior Bakshi, played by the vivacious Om Puri, is too old and distracted to notice anything unusual happening around him. Everything – conversations at the family’s dinner table and evening tea, the games that they play, and their picnic sessions – are dispassionate affairs. It’s easy to lose interest in the Bakshi clan. They are just mean people who do not have a great story to tell. When tragedy is about to strike them, you’d probably just say, “I saw this coming. Didn’t you?”
The lack of buzz in the proceedings though, isn’t of much consequence, thanks to Sen’s skillful direction. With ample support from her talented collaborators, cinematographer Sirsha Ray and composer Sagar Desai, Sen narrates Shuttu’s tale like a compelling bedtime story. There is a fascinating rhythm in her storytelling. During an instance, the family gets together at night to summon spirits – a prank they pull on the clueless Shuttu. Without any dramatic play of lights or music, the scene is chilling. The camera moves around the table at which the family sit, as though someone invisible is around, closely watching them play. Even when you know it’s just one of Vikram’s insensitive jokes, you feel there is something more to it. Several times in the film, there are references to death. The first word that Tani reads out from Shuttu’s notebook is ‘eulogy’. In a later scene, you see Shuttu and Tani perform a funeral for a bug. In order to discourage Tani from adopting a new pet, Bonnie reminds her of all her previous pet animals who died after she stopped caring for them. “Her turtle Haridas went for a walk one day, and never came back,” Bonnie jokes. Later you see the film slyly drawing a parallel between Shuttu and Tani’s pets. It’s rare to see such impressive motifs and imagery in Indian cinema these days. Sen’s film has a gripping language that might remind one of a Ruskin Bond novella. What makes it a more beautiful experience is Sagar Desai’s marvellous music that haunts you beyond the cinema hall.
Massey is utmost convincing as Shuttu. His face perfectly mirrors all the matted thoughts that must be playing inside Shuttu’s head all the time. Om Puri’s performance as the alcoholic old man is a delight to watch. Arya Sharma’s portrayal of Tani is perhaps the best of all. The child actress outperforms her adult counterparts in the emotional scenes which she plays with incredible restraint.
A Death In The Gunj is not an unforgettable film, thanks to the unexciting events and characters at its centre, but it sure signals the arrival of a gifted filmmaker, Konkana Sen Sharma.
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