I first saw the trailer of actor-turned-writer/director Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj in September ’16, days before it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The English-language Indian drama caught my attention precisely because it was an Indian film by an Indian director in English, of which there are few.
With a nine-(wo)man ensemble plus a Labrador puppy, the film’s biggest strength was obviously going to be its performers. The question was who would be the best?
The year is 1979. Twenty-three-year-old Shyamal, also known as Shutu, goes to his maternal aunt and uncle’s home in McCluskieganj. With him are his cousin (the aunt and uncle’s son) Nandu, Nandu’s wife Bonnie, their eight-year-old Tani and Bonnie’s friend Mimi. They are soon joined by two of Nandu’s friends: the newly-married macho man Vikramjit and the level-headed Anglo-Indian Brian.
Shutu is reserved and introverted, which makes him the butt of many a joke. He is bullied by the others and often made to feel insignificant. The main instigator of the bullying is Vikramjit, who is ever-ready to prove his masculinity and to make others feel small. Shutu’s sole companion is his niece Tani. One night, once the oldies and the kid are asleep, the others decide to call spirits to their habitat. A well-written and well-paced scene follows and from thereon, the film picks up a little as characters clash, revelations are made and then comes the patiently built-up climax, which is a shock, to say the least.
The film is based on a short story by director Konkona’s dad, Mukul Sharma, which in turn is based on true events that Sharma and his then wife Aparna Sen were witness to. The screenplay, penned by Konkona with Disha Rindani serving as Additional Writer, is detailed and unhurried. It takes its own sweet time to unfold but does so methodically: peeling off layers one by one until it lays bare. The language is a tad too modern for the late 70s and that is one of the drawbacks in the screenplay, another being that a rather important character is not fleshed out well enough. Sagar Desai’s music is apt and easy on the ears, much unlike a lot of the crap one hears these days. There is also a traditional folk song from around the area of McCluskieganj which works rather well in the context of the film. Sirsha Ray’s frames have a light sepia coat but they capture the landscape of McCluskieganj beautifully. The shots are smooth and informative. The costume designer Rohit Chaturvedi dresses the characters appropriately for the period and doesn’t let himself go. Much credit to him and Konkona for not overdressing the cast. Manas Mittal and Aarif Sheikh share editing duties and do a decent job with stitching together the many transitions.
The cast is the second-best thing about ADITG. That Lab puppy is supremely cute and looks untaught, exactly how a young puppy should be. Arya Sharma is delightful as young Tani. She gets the character’s two main qualities: innocently sweet and annoying, absolutely right. Om Puri, in one of his last roles, is disappointing. He bumbles and mumbles through his small part, making one wonder why he is there at all. Tanuja makes up for Puri’s poor performance with a gentle, motherly turn as Anupama Bakshi. She shows the greatest concern for her nephew when he starts acting odd. The veteran beings an enormous amount of grace and elegance to the screen. Need to see much more of this fine actress on screen. Kalki Koechlin is brilliant as always in the role of seductress Mimi. Despite the promiscuous nature of the character, it is not really possible to dislike her, such is the way Kalki plays her. Ranvir Shorey is despicably good as the brash, self-centred and arrogant toerag Vikramjit. This is the guy you are supposed to hate and you do. Kudos to Shorey for pulling off another fine performance despite the rather one-dimensional character. Jim Sarbh, who was terrific as terrorist Khalil in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja is splendid as the most mature of the three grown men. His Brian comes across as a well-mannered, polite man who plays pranks on gullible chaps like Shutu but is also responsible. Tillotama Shome is sensible and real as Bonnie. Gulshan Devaiah’s Nandu is a typical Indian brought up in patriarchy, though he doesn’t fall to greats lows as Vikramjit. From Shaitan to Hunterr to ADITG, Devaiah is an evolving artist, and a damn good one (him and Jim Sarbh can start an evolving actors association). The star of the show is Vikrant Massey, seen earlier in Lootera and Dil Dhadakne Do. As Shutu, he is fantastic. His emotions are real, his loneliness is visible and the pain he brings to Shutu is commendable. Perhaps this year’s best performance, even surpassing Rajkummar’s fabulous act in Trapped. Massey is one heck of an actor and I hope I get to see loads more of him on screen.
Konkona Sen Sharma has always been a fabulous actress. She takes that form into her directorial debut and comes out with flying colours. She is in total control of her film and captains the ship smoothly. The film is grounded in reality and has a nice plot going for it. But all of this could’ve fallen apart under a less able director than Konkona. Another thing that worked for the film is that it reminded me of the numerous Ruskin Bond stories I’ve read, so it was a little like an unconscious nostalgia trip.
While it would’ve been just as good as a horror film or a thriller, ADITG works beautifully in the coming-of-age genre as well, the centre of attention being Shutu. It shows us what constant bullying can do to a person and how a person becomes after a massive personal upheaval. Add to that loneliness and a lack of contact with the opposite gender and you have a difficult person to deal with. It shows us how blind we can be to another person’s plight, no matter how close we are to them. It also makes a feminist statement about how some women have been willing to fight for a fair deal for a long time. In a scene where something goes wrong and Nandu needlessly blames Bonnie for the situation, she retaliates fearlessly, showing him his place as was needed. A fine moment!
Thank you, Konkona Sen Sharma, for giving me a firm favourite movie of the year (up till now).
Go watch this film. It’s one of a kind and one that sadly may not be in theatres for long!
A Death In The Gunj: 4/5
PS: Tillotama Shome and Gulshan Devaiah just retweeted my tweet about the film. Just saying. And Konkona Sen Sharma liked my tweet to her about the film.
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