Review: A Death in the Gunj with Konkona Sen Sharma’s interview

Star Cast: Vikrant Massey, Tilottama Shome, (Late) Om Puri, Tanuja, Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin, Jim Sarbh, Ranvir Shorey, Arya Sharma

When I was doing my Masters in Calcutta University, we had a classmate Soumya. I can’t remember his surname though. He had a bent jaw-line that gave him a crooked chin and a deformed face. He remained alone mostly. Then one day he just gave up.

He gave up much like Shutu (Massey). So when I saw A Death in the Gunj, a silent guilt rose within me in lumps of bitterness. Did we do enough to get him to join the flock or did we do enough to push him to the brink. I will never know that, but Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut sent out a thousand screams in the slow smouldering demolition of Shutu.

The film is based on a short story by her father Mukul Sharma, which was inspired by true events. A Bengali family visits McCluskiegunj, now in Jharkhand, to celebrate the New Year of 1979. Nandu’s (Gulshan Devaiah) parents O.P Bakshi (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja) stay in a beautiful bungalow. Nandu visits with his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) and cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey). They are joined by Nandu’s friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Brian (Jim Sarbh) and Bonnie’s Anglo-Indian friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin).

The stage is set. Konkona tells a tale that one would love to hear sitting around a bonfire on a winter night. The haze of the Gunj, the somber forest line, the long winding almost desolate roads, the distant ripples of tribal music, the chiaroscuro of the setting add to the haunting.

“This is a story I have been hearing ever since I was a child. It was always at the back of my mind… kind of chotobelar golpo…family anecdote. It was not like I was looking for a subject, it was rather like I always knew this subject and at one point it developed to such an extent in my head that I realised that I can make a film on it. I see a lot of myself in Shutu. His character is based a lot on my growing up. It has a lot to do with me. As we grow older we know how to deal with it…we become used to,” Konkona was saying on the other side of the phone as my mind wandered in between the old balconies of Darbhanga Building of Calcutta University and the dirt track along which Shutu and Tani were drifting following a spare tyre.

In the movie what begins as a fun filled vacation soon starts to shed skin. Vikram, who has recently got married, is in an extra marital affair with Mimi, who can’t handle her heartbreak and . Vikram is also the bully who leaves out no single opportunity to harass Shutu. Nandu emerges as the spare-the-rod patriarch who wants to instill confidence in his cousin but actually drains him of the last dregs of confidence left within.

“Given a chance Shutu may have also learnt to deal with life. But he didn’t. It is a story of someone who fulfills a fake prophecy. Imagine what could be his mental state that he fulfilled a trickery of a planchet. He is a character with whom both men and women can identify. I wanted to do a film on vulnerability, about someone who is overlooked in life; people we don’t hear as often, not clamouring for attention and how callously we deal with people. Our everyday cruelty that we commit even without realizing,” Konkona’s voice wafted about.

“Women are affected by patriarchal values. Men are also limited and boxed in by the same set of values and defined by them. They are given certain parameters within which they live. There is a hierarchy within families…there are power dynamics…we allow this person to have a say…when this person talks everybody listens….it’s also arbitrary,” there was a pain in her voice and it reflected in the movie as it melted into the dark spot in Shutu’s heart as in the dead of the night he banged his head against the wall boxed between the old wardrobe and a corner.

Shutu had recently lost his father. Nobody took him seriously and his only friend and companion in the group is Nandu and Bonnie’s daughter Tani. He becomes the butt of all jokes. But he endures silently. Adulterous relationships, hurtful pranks and a cutthroat game of kabaddi all add to the rage building within him. In fact a scene where he tries the sweater of his father and holds on to it sobbing silently is disturbing and painful. You feel the claustrophobia deep within.

“I wished there was more silence. But then I would have made a longer slower film (laughs)…we don’t look out for people…and they slowly perish,” Konkona was trailing off.

Shutu’s silence is set against Vikram’s boisterousness, Nandu’s ascendancy, Mr Bakshi’s indifference, Bonnie’s self-centred world and Mimi’s lust for attention. What perhaps hurtles Shutu to his doom is the overpowering guilt of betraying the only person—Tani– who treated him as a human being. He falls apart and implodes. Any other ending, though its predictable, would do injustice to this extremely poignant delicate caravan of images that trudges through the fog and undulations of McCluskiegung.

Sirsha Roy’s camera and the folk music in the background score adds to the edginess of the movie. A must watch for all ages. It is also time to say sorry to a lot of people by a lot of us.

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