A Death in the Gunj (2016) Movie Review

Director: Konkona Sensharma
Writer: Disha Rindani, Konkona Sen Sharma, Mukul Sharma
Starring: Vikrant Massey, Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Tillotama Shome, Gulshan Devaiah, Tanuja, Om Puri

A blue Ambassador passes by a broken Gateway sign to McCluskieganj that reads “Your visit will surprise you”—a premonition, the first of many such scattered all throughout the film, before they all make sense at the climax.

Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut is a trilingual drama based on a short story by her father, Mukul Sharma, which in itself was inspired by a personal incident way back in 1979. Konkona transports us to the New Year’s week in 1979 when a Curney’s special bread loaf and a fruit cake would cost just 9 Rupees and 4 Annas!

Shutu, played impeccably by Vikrant Massey, is off to have a vacation in the sleepy town of McCluskieganj with his extended family as a means of escaping all the problems in his life. Sadly for him, this visit does not serve its motive. Everyone turns a blind eye to the fact that Shutu hasn’t been able to come to terms with his father’s death and is clearly suffering from depression. It is suffocating as well as exasperating to witness how instead of being cared for, Shutu is bullied by his jarringly toxic friends and family members, especially the men. Konkona showcases those times’ definitions of a loser and a cool guy by juxtaposing Vikram’s sensitive, thoughtful and empathetic Shutu to Ranvir’s Vikram reeking toxic masculinity (I am happy we live in a better time where largely speaking the tables have completely turned in this regard!).  The family helpers Maniya and Manjari seem more humane in contrast; they end up looking after those that the family forgets once they get over their use or short-lived fancies, be it the puppy Fluffy or Shutu.

The movie is gripping and at times eerie, giving the viewers a sense of quiet, as if time has slowed down. The movie is strewn with allegory: the dead bug, the family tree, the Ambassador’s dicky (Indian English for car trunk), and the planchette…leaving the viewer with melancholy and discomfort once the realisation hits.

Vikram Massey makes Shutu so real, vulnerable, and yet endearing that sometimes you want to give Shutu a big hug, letting him know that all is well. But it also makes you wonder if the many Shutus that might be around us that we fail to acknowledge. Massey’s near-perfect accent in Bengali is also to be praised, a rarity for non-Bengali actors. Brilliant performances by all the other actors, which makes me believe Honey Trehan did a fantastic casting. Sirsha Roy has done a fabulous job at helping with the cinematography. Special mention for Kunal Sharma (Sound) and Sagar Desai (Music) for their combined effort for an enthralling background score, easily a bulwark in this brilliant storytelling.

The attention to detail is exemplary: the sword and shield replica wall decor, the white and lavender coloured Yardley talcum powder tin, a drawer with plastic hair rollers, Kashmiri embroidered ponchos… all of which take the viewer back to the bygone era of the late ’70s and ’80s or even the ’90s (it is strange how those 3 decades seem so similar to each other while 5 years ago from now seem ancient: technology has made time move so fast). Coming from a town around the same region as McCluskieganj, these details are all too familiar. This movie has given me a sense of identity and belongingness like no other.

Anglophiles speaking 3 languages simultaneously (English, Hindi and Bengali), the Santhali dances, the wilderness, the wooded roads, the sound of trains passing by, the old dilapidated bungalows with large gardens on the edge of a forest, the infestation of frogs, the spooky yet homely surroundings…all with a sprinkling of left-over British Colonial customs and mannerisms; this feels like a movie on my hometown.

The long outro of the blue Ambassador driving away from McCluskieganj is an ingenious way of leaving the viewer with a sense of both estrangement and freedom at the same time. Like Shutu we are looking back at what happened in just a week’s time; like Shutu we are left with a heavy heart; like Shutu we are finally free from McCluskieganj!

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