In her writing and directorial debut, Konkona SenSharma constructs and deconstructs family dynamics with a lens that captures the stunning beauty of McCluskieganj, even as it peels away the ugliness and murkiness of what could lie underneath those very dynamics in those very haunting landscapes. A Death in the Gunj isn’t a pacy thriller, nor does it aspire to be one. The director weaves the plot around an Anglo-Indian family, setting her pen and camera in an unobtrusive yet observant corner, being your everyday broadcaster of a family that’s gotten together for New Year’s in 1978, and then ensures it all unravels by the time the calendar changes its circa.
Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), their daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), Nandu’s cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey), and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) arrive at Nandu’s parents’ – O.P. (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja) Bakshi – in McCluskieganj in an Ambassador car. You know that by the end of the week, that very car will be carrying a dead body and be on its way to the morgue. But before that happens, you must also meet Nandu and Shutu’s other cousins, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh). Add two other characters in the Bakshi residence, their Man Friday Mania (Ashok Pathak) and his wife and house maid Manjari (Saraswati Devi), and you’re ready to join the family routine.
The director beautifully builds the characters and their personalities through evenings of drinks, dinner, morning tea, parties, and picnics, getting their hairdo, spectacle frames, clothes and the 70s rebel look as if she’s made you travel back in time. As each scene unfolds, the layers of interaction between each of them and how they impact others does too. And she shifts long untouched stones, leaving you to jump back at the crawling and lingering creatures that no one in the room wants to acknowledge. Much before you realize it, you’ve actually begun to get deeply involved with this motley bunch, following their banter, understanding what makes them tick and what ticks them off.
But it is the darker side of the relationships that hold a semblance of a thriller, including a superbly shot séance scene, that set the tone for what becomes a disturbing and deeply moving denouement to the movie. And in that sense, A Death in the Gunj is a study of how taken-for-granted some introverts in a family can feel, and how asymptomatic these feelings can seem to the rest. Director SenSharma weaves her story using moments that are painful, joyful, and truthful even.
She shoots a sunny scene with Shutu and Tani, where both of them and you rediscover the simple, seemingly inhuman, and yet satisfying experience of frying an insect on a leaf using a magnifying lens. Or, the absolutely true-to-life shot where the maid complains to her husband, wondering when the guests will scoot, and relieve them of their additional burden. Or, the blink-and-you-miss scene where the class demarcation is neatly delineated, when after a scene at a raucous party in the Bakshi’s living room, you’re taken into their back-verandah, where the servants are having their dinner, just the rice and some gravy, and Manjari’s also feeding the small puppy that Tani’s been gifted.
Sagar Desai composes a very moving and sparse background score – a guitar (that he plays himself), flutes and the harp combine to create lonely and lovely pieces that add to the greyish mood.
The ensemble cast does an eminently terrific job, their interplay completely au naturel. Gulshan Devaiah see-saws perfectly between a guy who’s cool and a family man to being a strict brother to Shutu; Tillotama Shome is splendid as his wife, a caring mother who wants to have good time, and finally trying to keep her best friend in rein; Kalki smoulders and stumbles oh so well as the jealous Mimi, her best moments in a drunken scene and then a seduction that follows; Ranvir Shorey is very unlikeable as the brash Vikram, getting physical and also hogging the limelight whenever he wants with a flick of his hair; the late Om Puri and Tanuja waltz through their roles with an élan that only supreme talent can. Speaking of which, Vikrant Massey shines as the sensitive Shutu, and the director takes special care of him as she shows you his desires, his failings, his jealousy, and his hurt. There’s a stunning scene where Shutu and a predator come face to face, pitch dark in the jungle – and the switcheroo of their lives hits you smack in your gut, as the four-legged creature’s free to move about and Shutu’s trapped, physically and metaphorically.
“You’re beautiful”, an appraising Kalki’s Mimi tells Massey’s Shutu in one scene. What she doesn’t realize, as don’t others in his family, is that all of that beauty stems from his loneliness, hurt, and desire to be loved.
A Death in the Gunj is rated A (Restricted to adults). There’s an intimate scene, coarse language, and a shocking ending.
A Death in the Gunj
Director Konkona SenSharma Running Time 1h 50 min
Writers Konkona Sen Sharma, Disha Rindani
Stars Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome, Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Om Puri, Tanuja, Ranvir Shorey, Jim Sarbh
Genres Drama, Thriller
Watch the trailer of A Death in the Gunj here: