A Death in the Gunj is one of the most riveting debuts of 2017
There are some films that arrive as silently as nightfall, leaving you wide awake with its murmur.
There are men, and then there are ‘real men’. The society, the men and their self-made rules of how manly a man should be, is the yardstick which all men have to measure up to. What if they don’t? Are they still men or do we as a society have more work to do on them, in making them…well just like us.
The white fog fills the screen, with an eerie background score, when the title shows itself on the screen. We are reluctant yet intrigued about this world that’s set in 1979, when a Bengali family goes on a holiday from Kolkata to McCluskieganj (then Bihar, in present Jharkhand). There is celebration in the air (it’s New Year’s time), innocent love, grief of the dead, sense of alienation and an impending death.
Konkona’s debut has all things Bengali, yet no Sensharma, just the way we watch a puppet show with the puppeteer cleverly hidden out of sight. Her adeptness in directing her debut is seen from the way we watch the film. It’s as if we’re the uninvited guests in their living rooms filled with laughter, food and alcohol. And we watch the film with Shutu (Vikrant Massey), the endearing protagonist who’s stuck somewhere between a boy and a man, whatever that means.
Shutu has come to McCluskieganj after a long time since he lost his father. He tells people that he is going to apply for a scholarship to study abroad, while we have a private dekko at his abysmal marksheet. A loner, he tries to fit in, blend into the large family of cousins, uncles, aunts and unknown friends, only to find solace in the company of an eight year old Tani. He draws, likes literature, poetry and preserves moth between the yellowish pages of his tattered diary. A special mention to Massey for portraying this subtle, layered character with a finesse which usually comes after years of experience. He is the sensitive type, who gets picked last in a kabaddi game, where even the servants are picked before him.
Then there are the ‘real men’, beer-guzzlers, loud-mouthed, hot-blooded, imposing men, who don’t mind being adulterous in a marriage. Shutu is an observer who watches the drama unfold, while we look at his own self unravel in the process. He spends his afternoons lazing on the yellow grass with Tani (his cousin’s daughter), where they kill an ant with a magnifying glass, only to bury it with much care and love. There is an irony so gently showcased, that only in the end do we connect the dots and the finer layers of the film reveal themselves.
A film that boasts of a solid and credible ensemble cast, we have Bonnie (Tilottama Shome) as the loving, frank and nurturing mother, Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) as the over-imposing cousin who goes to any lengths while teaching Shutu how to reverse a car and Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), the hot-tempered, loud, motorcycle bearing, prankster who doesn’t leave any occasion to make Shutu feel less of a man. Then there is Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) as the fragile, confused friend who’s composed on the outside with an undercurrent of emotions running through her like a livewire. Jim Sarbh portrays the calm yet elusive friend who’s almost missing throughout the film, making appearances at the right moments.
There is restraint in the storytelling, use of regional languages and songs which makes for a great viewing (not everything needs to be spelled out). Every scene, however mundane it might be tells us something about the characters. Like the scene where Mimi cuts the potatoes in the wrong style, only to be scolded by Bonnie!
A Death in the Gunj is not a film per se, but a palpable feeling of alienation. It’s about coming to terms with loss and the inexplicable bond between Shutu and Tani, which lays bare deepest of emotions while hiding the wounds. Just the way Shutu wears his father’s sweater, it says all about his pain and the guilt he feels of not being the ‘man’ he was.
If only the film was not a reverse-countdown to the climax, delineating a perfectly seamless flow of events, it would’ve intensified the climax by a great deal. Nonetheless, this film is not to be missed for its simplicity and complexity, both woven from the same fabric, making it one of the best releases this year and a fitting send off to the legendary Om Puri.
P.S: This review is a part of the #BadPopcorn contest. Your recommendations would be of great use!