“A Death in the Gunj”… Sounds like a murder mystery, but really an exquisite character study

Posted on June 4, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

The title of Konkona Sen Sharma’s first feature, A Death in the Gunj (based on a short story by Mukul Sharma), promises that a life will be lost, and the opening scene confirms this. Two men peer into the trunk of an Ambassador and wonder, “Maybe we should bend the knees and put the body in a foetal position.” Whose body is it? Is it just a death, or is it murder? How did these men – in McCluskieganj (a former British haunt in Jharkhand , but part of Bihar during the timeline of this film, which is a little after the Emergency) – come in possession of the corpse?

Be warned that these questions aren’t going to be ticked off at regular intervals. A Death in the Gunj is more interested in the week that preceded the unfortunate incident, a week that unfolds as languorous days, numbered on screen from 1 through 7. We expect a murder mystery. We get a pitch-perfect evocation of vacations in the 1970s, when we visited relatives who had no television sets and the only thing that was 24×7 was time itself. Konkona’s biggest achievement as director may be that she nails this air of pleasant boredom.

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Pre-release features have brought up films like Aranyer Din Raatri and Picnic at Hanging Rock as possible progenitors, but the connections are, at best, on the surface. From the former, we get the conceit of city dwellers away from “civilisation,” and maybe you could point to the memory game finding an echo in a game of kabaddi, both leading to character insights. From the latter, we get the missing girl and pan flute passages in the score. But Death is something else altogether. It’s about death itself.

The film gives us dead insects, words related to death (“eulogy”), a seance, a graveyard. It’s about the death of a people, Anglo-Indians who baked fruit cakes and were fussy about soup spoons. It’s also about the death of an era, when the Anglophone upper classes who brought in New Years with Auld Lang Syne were put on a pedestal by those who didn’t speak English. (Today’s India is different.) The locals who serve the large Bengali clan that gathers at the home of the Bakshis (a beautifully matched Om Puri and Tanuja) are obviously “beneath” them, but Shutu (Vikrant Massey) is related. And yet…

When a shawl needs to be fetched, it’s Shutu who’s beckoned. When a little girl needs to be looked after, it’s Shutu. This isn’t wrong – he’s part of the family, after all. But when none of the others are asked to do anything “menial,” you begin to wonder. It isn’t just class here. It’s something else. And Konkona’s other triumph is her rendering of Shutu, a certain kind of “sensitive” male who’s rarely been seen on screen.

Shutu’s “fault” isn’t that he doesn’t speak English (he knows the difference between “drive” and “ride”; he reads Gulliver’s Travels; he wants to go to London for higher studies) or that he comes from a poorer branch of the family tree. It’s that he’s… invisible. No one seems to really see him. He’s just not cool enough. Early on, when his cousin Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) introduces him as Shutu, he hesitantly utters his name, Shyamlal. But no one takes note. It’s Shutu, Shutu, Shutu. What Massey does looks less like acting than alchemy – he creates a character who’s a bit of a loner, an introvert, who’s shy, someone who feels “lesser” than people who are casually, effortlessly cool, someone who wants to belong to this club but knows he never can. It’s painful to watch him.

One scene killed me. Away from the boisterous gathering outside, Shutu takes out a chocolate brown sweater from a cupboard and buries his face in it. It’s his father’s, and this is unusual too, that a male character is seen closer to his father than his mother, whom he can barely bring himself to talk to over the phone. Konkona doesn’t explain much, but teases out an outline that makes us imagine what it must be like for Shutu to be – for instance – forced into learning to drive a car by a short-tempered Nandu. The man practically cowers at the wheel.

Shutu – who walks around with a Rubik’s cube and wins games of chess – is also an example of how the brainy ones are, at least on vacations, not as sought out as the “fun ones.” Ranvir Shorey plays a family friend named Vikram, the very personification of extroversion – and you can imagine Shutu’s discomfiture. What’s worse than being forced into the presence of this Man’s Man? It’s when Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) appraises you and says, “You’re so pretty. You could be a girl.” None of this is played for cruelty, and indeed, Shutu’s fragile mental state may have as much to do with his travails as those around him, but it’s a bit of everything, and we know it won’t be long before the gun Bakshi Uncle is seen polishing will illustrate Chekhov’s principle.

A Death in the Ganj is wonderfully cast. Tillotama Shome plays Bonnie, Nandu’s wife, who probably knows one Bengali song, Salil Chowdhury’s Dhitang dhitang bole. She gets a great scene where she reacts to Vikram’s gold-bedecked Khasi bride with a mixture of contempt and political correctness. Jim Sarbh plays another family friend, Brian. Kalki gets a hilarious sex scene where her exertions slide the folded paper out from under the unsteady leg of a chair. Through her, we see another pitiful shade of Shutu, when he wheels out Vikram’s bike to her doorstep because he knows she wants to ride it. People with very little self-worth are prone to do these things, in the hope that the person at the other end will see them as helpful rather than pathetic. This is one of the finest character studies I’ve seen.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi