A Death in the Gunj movie review: Konkona's impressive directorial debut celebrates a good story
(Editor's note: This review was published after a screening at JioMami Mumbai Film Festival last year. We have republished it on the day of its India release, 2 June, 2017)
Perhaps one of the most bewildering things about Konkona Sen Sharma's directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj, is not being able to label or categorise it under a genre. This is the first thought I had when I walked out of its India premiere at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2016.
Is this film an indie-drama? "Artsy fartsy", as someone who watched the film with me, said? Parallel cinema? Slice of life? You scramble through way too many labels through A Death in a Gunj, trying to place the situations and characters in the film. But here's the thing. This film can't be put into an existing category. It is an indie-drama, a slice of life, an artsy film, yes. But it's first and foremost, an entertaining and engaging story set in 1979 about one family, from McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand (Bihar back then).
Each of the characters from this family sits in your head much, much after the film is over (it's a short one; Konkona should really be taking lessons on how to tell a crisp story. Ain't nobody got time for sagas anymore). The family heads, OP Bakshi (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja), live in a quaint home in the Gunj, which was historically supposed to be a resort town for Anglo-Indian families.
It now has semblances of a post-colonial hangover and the production design of the film beautifully captures that, what with an-almost Victorian household, a blue-coloured Premier Padmini, the patriarch of the family being heavily interested in hunting and shooting, and a general love for boozy soirees.
A Death in a Gunj begins when the younger bunch of the family — which is the son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), their daughter Tani (Arya Sharmav) and their reserved cousin Shutu (Vikrant Messey) — come visiting for Christmas holidays. The events of the film unfold over seven days.
In addition to the bunch, there's Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) who is Bonnie's friend, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh), both Nandu's friends. As the bunch of friends and cousins meet, presumably after a while (remember this is 1979 so no WhatsApp/social media for socialising or catching up) their dynamics start to unfold.
Vikram is the resident alpha male; almost a bully. He and Mimi have some residual sexual tension which they immediately act on, despite Vikram being married. In all this Shutu, who is also the family's bakra, is left to babysit and take care of Tani. They both form a beautiful bond; only makes you realise that kids don't care if you're timid or under-confident.
A Death in the Gunj resembles a story your grandmom tells you on a lazy Sunday afternoon just before you nap. It doesn't have a moral purpose or deep philosophical themes. It's just a story of a family reunion over seven days, and their inter-personal dynamics. The plot leads up to one death (I won't tell you whose) but as you watch the film, you really feel like you've lived with each of the characters.
With every subsequent film of his, you only fall more in love with Ranvir Shorey, the actor. He can be the affable Delhi boy Bunty in Khosla Ka Ghosla, as well as the conniving violent brother in Titli. In A Death in the Gunj, he plays his part as the group's ring-leader; the perpetrator of all things fun and risky. He's the anti-thesis to Shuntu (and he plays his part to perfection). You almost want to hate him, but then remind yourself that this is just a character. This is a big win for Konkona — the ability to have opinions about a character upon merely one viewing of a film.
Vikrant Massey as Shutu has perhaps the best performance in the film, and that's saying a lot because it has such heavyweights. It's under-performed to perfection; you're expecting him to erupt from being bullied or sidelined or pranked at several points in the film, but he doesn't. And then the film's climax almost makes you forget this anxious pursuit.
Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki, Jim Sarbh and Tillotama Shome are all engrossing in their characters, equally contributing to the plot of the film. As it progresses, you realise Shuntu isn't just the reserved Mama's boy that you started to believe. His silence is a result of much frustration and mental disturbance.
Once you start to scratch beneath the surface of A Death in the Gunj, you ask yourself the hard questions as a viewer. What's the point of this film? Sure, it has a message: it is beautifully shot, acted and directed. It made me want to read the written story that the film is based on. The late 70s setting is aptly re-created with the facial hair nuances, and the costumes.
But when you walk out of the film, it doesn't leave a deep impact on you. It probably won't be on a lot of people's "my favourite film" list. Maybe because it's not a flawless film. Mimi's character is quite the male fantasy caricature, for one. Even though the story is fairly engaging, you wish there was more. It seems rather abrupt in parts, as if the story's being hurried up to get to the finale (which is where it all comes together).
Apart from communicating with one another, there isn't much said in A Death in the Gunj. Much of the film's setting and purpose is communicated through visuals and allusions. While this can be alienating to a few, it really worked for me. And that's when I realised why Konkona Sen Sharma's debut was such a beautiful one.
These are the kind of films Indian cinema needs. Real stories, effortless natural acting, organic set ups in real locations (and not mammoth studios) — but most importantly just a good, interesting story. We've come so far into innovating with technology and equipment, that we forget that the best film's are ones with memorable characters and a story that keeps you hooked till the end.
You know there's a death in a the film due to the title, but it doesn't really hit home until the climax. Until then you're just sort of meandering in these peoples' lives, observing and making judgments about them.
Bollywood desperately needs films like A Death in the Gunj — one that doesn't take itself too seriously or isn't easy to frivolously label, but yet doesn't insult the intelligence of its viewer. We need to have a middle path between "artsy fartsy parallel cinema" and "mass masala entertainer", and Konkona Sen Sharma seems to have found a way.