A Death in the Gunj – A striking debut

Directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, 2017

First-poster-of-Konkona-Sen-Sharma-s-directorial-venture-A-Death-In-The-Gunj_base

Konkona Sen Sharma’s A rated debut film is a chamber drama, unfolding dreamily in the mystic light of a forestry Anglo-Indian settlement in Jharkhand of the 70-s. It starts off with two men (Nandu and Brian) peering down a car’s trunk, thinking aloud of how best to tuck in a “body”. A summer-sky blue car of the yesteryears then travels along the wintry paths to a holiday retreat- the mansion of the Bakshis in McCluskiegunj. The narrative by then has jumped a week backwards and plays out like a journalistic account with numbered days.

Right from the party’s arrival at Anupama and O.P.’s household, the exchanges in English with a few Bengali greetings and phrases thrown in, acquaint us with a mélange of characters suffering the cultural superiority of a colonial hangover.  The dominant mood is that of banter and the inner tensions of all vacationing members seem to concentrate on Shutu- a withdrawn 23 year old.  In fact the film could have been all about Shutu, the eternally hurt and abused ‘softie’ in the family whose meekness equally entertains and irritates others. His elder brother tries to ‘man’ him up the tough way, flicking him on the head and insisting he drive a car even when he clearly refuses. Reeking of machismo- Vikram bruises him during a game of kabaddi; Anupama disapproves of the mean-mindedness in the clichéd one-liner- “boys will be boys” at the dinner table. But we soon see that the women are no less when it comes to bullying, Mimi (played by the vivacious Kalki) calls him “pretty”, has drunk intercourse with him- riding him on a rocking chair in a very intelligently detailed scene that builds up your anticipation through suggestive tropes, and then leaves him.

Irresponsibility runs through the film like the haunting background scores that mix Indian folk songs with Tagore’s ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’ and Burn’s “Auld Lang Syne”. Shutu is absconding from his home; he has turned up at his maternal aunt’s house for retreat, keeping his guilt at bay from his mother’s weary voice that makes its way into the film through letters and a terribly one-sided telephone conversation. He has failed his post-graduation exams and is hung up on his father’s death. Tilottoma and Nandu, while clearly dismissing Shutu as an “imbecile”, still leave their daughter- the eight year old Tani under his care. So that when she goes missing, the blame is clearly on his imbecility. Tani, in turn, is super excited to adopt a puppy whom she names Fluffy but soon loses the will to care and it ends up straying around.

In a tenderly amusing moment, the film shows Fluffy sharing an idyllic family dinner with the servants; the housemaid hand-feeds him a plate of rice as her husband has his meal by their side.  In the family’s visit to Ms. Mckenzie’s place for lunch, we hear her dishes being highly praised as the camera covers them in detail but, immediately we are offered a glimpse of her in the kitchen- licking the ladle with which she stirs and serves the food. We are nudged awake to her lack of hygiene. Equally tickling is the servant’s lack of concern when he discovers Shutu in a ditch- very matter-of-factly he exclaims that it is strange of him to slouch in a ditch when the whole family is looking for him. The film is replete with these wry flashes of humour.

Also, the servant’s discovery of Shutu in the ditch comes after minutes of agitation over the lost child. The narrative drops red herrings like Miss Curney stealthily visiting the grave of her daughter who died an infant and Tani reciting a poem where she wishes to be six forever, making you flinch for the worst when Tani goes missing. In an exceptional stroke, Sharma returns the child unceremoniously home while having moved on to Shutu’s trepidations in the ditch he falls into on his search for Tani in the woods at night.

We see glimpses of suppressed rage in Shutu all along (as he is wronged time and again) but pass over just like the film’s cast does till all goes berserk in the final moments. The death happens as announced right in the title (which thankfully was not a red herring!) but there again, the director makes visual poetry out of the gore. In an arresting shot, the blood splatters all over the bark of the family tree where their names are etched (Tani and Shutu trace the names on the first day of the trip) and trickles down in slow motion. A couple of minutes later, we see Shutu- wafer-like and haunting in the backseat of the car (which also carries the corpse) as he is driven back to the city.

Needless to say, Sen Sharma’s debut which has been critically acclaimed for its “assuredness” deals with human psyche in a charming way. Even while Shutu runs the risk of being reduced to a trope (for campaigning) precisely because the narrative never wanders far from his basic predicament, the story balances it out. The other full-bodied characters, the games and gaiety, the suspense and humour come together to give you a comprehensive experience of watching cinema. For me, one of the most warm takeaways is the friendship between Shutu and Tani (Shutu’s only true bond), and the hurt when the former acts forgetful about it.

– Barnamala Roy

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s