A Death in the Gunj: Movie Review

Konkona Makes A Remarkable Directorial Debut In Gunj


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Starring Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin,  Ranvir Shorey, GulshanDevaiah, Tillotama Shome,Om Puri, Tanuja

Written & Directed by Konkona Sen Sharma

Rating: **** ½(4 and a  half stars)

It’s hard to define the mood of unrehearsed  foreboding and a vague sense of doom that is built into Konkona Sen Sharma’s fragile  yet ferocious family-on-a-disastrous-hillstation-holiday film.

If one  didn’t know better, one would classify A Death In The Gunj as a whodunit. An Agatha Christie  novel  condensed into two hours of layered crisp crunchy but seemingly pointless  conversations  where families on a  lazy vacation talk nonsense, play silly games evoking dead spirits(please!) while kids and pets run around in the large crumbling family home as the house-help grumbles about the sudden surge in domestic responsibilities.

It’s  a familiar scenario for a tense exploration of fissures and fractures in the joint-family system. Satyajit Ray’s Aranyar Din Ratri, more  recently Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do and Konkana’s mom’s Picnic have walked that talk with swimming success. Ms SenSharma doesn’t miss a beat as her keen eye for detail fills the frames with  the kind of domestic familiarity and  comfort that are  known only to those who have spent large hours vacationing in lazy spots with their extended family.

Meet the Bakshis as they assemble in the family home inMcCluskieganj. Nandu(Gulshan Deviah) ,wife Bonnie(TillotamaShome) and their little daughter Tani(Arya Sharma) accompanied by two friends Mimi(Kalki Koechlin) and Brian (Jim Serbh) and above all, Nandu’s cousin Shuti(Vikrant Massey)—dear desperate bullied yet beloved Shutu the gentle lanb of the family–  have come to spend time with  Nandu’s parents(Om Puri and Tanuja).

It is imperative to lay out the blueprint for Konkona’s  family tree so we can make sense of   the subtle  unfathomable drama that unfolds leading up to an inexplicably tragic finale.

A Death In Gunj is  a film replete with resonances and echoes from the past that can never fade or grow redundant. This is a universe we have all occupied at one time or another.And there is a ‘Shutu’ in all of us…unsure, uncertain of the future, lacking in selfconfidence and fearful of failure in life… It takes an actor of infinite skills to play everyman with individualistic skills. Vikrant Massey sets a new benchmark in performing the inconspicuous common man’s extraordinary struggles to remain visible to a world that takes his presence for granted.

Vikrant has two remarkable breakdown sequences and an outstanding seduction sequence on an  antique chair with the perky Kalki. It’s rare to see a director in India shoot a lovemaking scene so innovatively.AsKalki takes charge over the besotted virgin-boy’s  pants and groans, we are transported into a rare firmament  of furtive pleasures that leave a lasting impression.

Not that the other actors lag behind Massey. Every actor blends with  virile vehemence into the multilayered fold  of the  plot  bringing to the family tragedy a kind of heft and  immediacy that we haven’t seen in a Hindi film for a long time.

Ranveer Shorey stands out from the gallery of performers. His arrogant libidinousness is celebrated in a striking dinner get-together where his wife , a simple homely woman, is treated shabbily without her  being aware of it.

The  year is 1979 and remarkably, the debutant director doesn’t resort to  positioning popular film songs from that era to project periodicity. Her period palate is far more ambitious. Konkana Sen Sharma uses colours, fabrics, mores and mannerisms from those times without seeming to put undue stress on manner and dress.

Sirsha Ray’s camera tiptoes  over these ordinary lives, seeking the romance of the routine, offering glimpses  of the gorgeous in the non-descript. A Death In The Gunj tells its leisurely story with befitting skill and deftness. The upheavals on the placid surface erupt suddenly . But we are not unwarned.  Kalki’s wanton sexuality and her sudden shocking behaviour in a  graveyard sequence , a wife suddenly performing fellatio on her  husband, and of course the unscheduled love-making on the creaky uneven chair…they all indicate imbalances of Nature that middleclass families secrete in their lives.

In that sense Shutu is not real. He  is a thought too ordinary to be  a metaphor, at the same time too extraordinary to be just another Everyman.

“You are beautiful, almost  like a girl,” Kalki’s mercurial Mimu tellsShutu as blushes with pride.Some such oxymoronic  compliment  would be apt for this film. It’s beautiful yet rugged.Masculine in subject yet feminine in  its delicately drawn scenes and moments.

How do we put this?   Just go watch.

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