The movie ends. The credits roll by. A whole auditorium of movie goers keeps sitting in silence. A minute later few of them get up and start leaving, still silent. There is hardly any of the frivolity that we generally associate with a group of people leaving a theatre after having watched a “good” movie. It is unusual and profound at the same time; for A Death in the Gunj is a good movie. In fact, on many counts it is an excellent movie.
The directorial debut of Konkona Sen Sharma, who this writer personally considers to be an actor par excellence and extremely under-appreciated at that, tells the story of a family on vacation in the simpler sepia toned times of the late 1970s. After establishing in the very first scene itself that, true to the movie’s name, a death has indeed taken place, we travel in flashback to the sleepy uneventful town of McCluskieganj in Bihar. Nandu Baksi, his wife Bonnie and their eight year old daughter Tani are travelling from Calcutta to spend the last week of 1978 with Nandu’s parents, O.P. and Anupama Bakshi. Accompanying them are Mimi, Bonnie’s attractive albeit self-centered friend; and Shutu, Nandu’s demure wallflower of a cousin. Once in McCluskiegunj we meet Nandu’s childhood friends, Vikram and Brian. An unapologetic alpha male, Vikram is all rum, bikes and guns, with rudimentary guitar strumming skill thrown in. To Brian, a reserved local Anglo Indian boy who is his friend, Vikram is assertive; with Shutu, who he considers inconsequential, he is a merciless bully. There are also Maniya and Manjari, the married house-help of the Bakshis. The mood is set and they are all there to have a gala time ushering in 1979. There is much drinking, rekindling of an affair and merrymaking in general.
Trapped amidst all of this is Shutu.
Shutu, who is still trying to come to terms with the vacuum the loss of his father, has left in life. Shutu, who is a brilliant student, yet has miserably failed his M.Sc. exams. Shutu is drowning in his despair; as the audience realizes soon enough, yet no one in his family notices. He is desperately trying to hold his own, to come into his own, but is brushed away unceremoniously as a minor inconvenience by the adults; for he is still considered a kid at 23. He is there to do everyone’s bidding without having solicited to do so. His only companion is his niece, Tani, the one person who does not look down upon him, pity or bully him.
As the others casually dole out every day minor humiliations at Shutu, pranking him or trying to toughen him up; the film draws its audience in, there is a constant yet intangible feeling that all of it is slowly building up to an event zero. You speculate whose eponymous death you must steel yourself for; yet when it comes you still are taken aback. You realize that in a way the smoldering slow burning pace of the movie was the essence of the story, but it was also kind of setting you up. And therein lies the magic of Ms. Sen Sharma’s writing and direction. The story and its unfolding is the hero here.
A Death in the Gunj is brimming over the top with talented actors, each aptly cast to play its wide range of characters. It is wonderful to see Gulshan Devaiah (Nandu) as the well-meaning if insensitive elder brother, as it is to see Tilottama Shome (Bonnie) play his concerned-yet-not-enough wife. Kalki Koechlin (Mimi) as the unusual femme fatale, is her usual top act. Ranvir Shorey will make you want to cut Vikram to his size while wishing to see more of Mr. Shorey in roles that do his acting prowess justice. And we definitely need to thank the veteran actor Tanuja (Anupama Bakshi) for returning to the big screen with such a nuanced performance of the grandmother, without the usual trappings of such a character. Both Arya Shrama (Tani) and Jim Sarbh (Brian) are well cast. Even the supporting characters are a brilliant fit; the local actors playing Maniya and Manjari deserving special mention. Om Puri, as brilliant a thespian as he was, might have brought in a little more genuine Bengaliness in his depiction of O.P. Bakshi, but we are just scrutinizing in saying that.
If we seem to have missed Vikrant Massey, it is only to single him out for high praise. Acting wise, the film rests on his precise handling of the gentle troubled Shutu, and boy, does he deliver! Mr. Massey will make you want to reach out to Shutu, to hold him and tell him that everything is going to be okay, something you wish his family would do instead of just pushing his troubled mind closer to the edge. The portrayal of such a difficult character could easily have gone wrong, and one must give credit to Mr. Massey for playing it with acute control and finesse. We definitely want to see more of the actor in the future, and hope that he’ll continue to be discerning in his choice of roles.
A Death in the Gunj is luxuriously leisurely, yet there is not one irrelevant or wasted dialogue, expression or scene.
A Death in the Gunj is luxuriously leisurely, yet there is not one irrelevant or wasted dialogue, expression or scene. The movie has a large cast, but all characters have a purpose to fulfill. We don’t get a hero in the movie; we get a protagonist who is as unlike a hero as they come. For a serious movie, it has a handful of nuggets of humor scattered along the way. Ms. Sen Sharma has written the movie as a study in contrasts, and it is precisely the harmony in the coexistence of all these contrasts that impart the movie its body and soul.
If there is one minute bit that we have to point out it would be that the average Joe might wonder what the purpose of the movie was. It does not have the typical agenda of a start, a middle and an end as many movies do. Yet that is not an accident, but planned by design. Often it feels like a discreet camera has been left running, and we are getting a glimpse in the life of a motley bunch. Irrespective of that, the climax will leave many retrospective of the events that have unfolded before their eyes over the past couple of hours. That, is its purpose.
In conclusion, A Death in the Gunj will make you thankful that sincere and honest cinema still exists, and that you are here to catch it in all its subtle glory. It is a movie that will leave with you out of the auditorium.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
About the writer
Ankita Chaudhuri is, in her own words, your average not-so-bhadra NRB (Non Residential Bengali) mahila residing in Pune. She tries to maintain a day job for papi pet, but her real hobbies are sleeping in all weekend, trying new cusinies and reading late into the night so that she is always rushed for office the next day. And oh yeah, she tries to squeeze in a bit of writing, once in a while.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this film and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.