By Subhash K Jha
Film: “A Death In The Gunj”; Writer-Director: Konkona Sen Sharma; Cast: Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Ranvir Shorey, Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome, Om Puri, Tanuja. Rating: ****1/2
It’s hard to define the mood of unrehearsed foreboding and a vague sense of doom that is built into Konkona’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 and crunchy, but seemingly pointless conversations, where families on a lazy vacation talk nonsense, play silly games evoking dead spirits 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 “Aranyer Din Ratri” , more recently Zoya Akhtar’s “Dil Dhadakne Do” and Konkana’s mother’s “Picnic” have walked that talk with great success.
Konkona 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 in McCluskieganj. Nandu (Gulshan Deviah), wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) 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 lamb 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 self confidence 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 in 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.
Every actor blends 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 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 lovemaking on the creaky uneven chair — they all indicate imbalances of nature that middle class 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.
It’s beautiful yet rugged. Masculine in subject yet feminine in its delicately drawn scenes and moments.
How do we put this? A Just-Go-Watch.