Some films just break your heart. They wheedle their way in with a warm embrace, and find a way to really stay with you, leaving you with deep a sense of loss, and yet, gratitude. A Death in the Gunj is one such film.
It offers up such a sweet, sincere, and pure main character in Shutu, brought to life in a career-defining performance by Dil Dhadakne Do’s Vikrant Massey, with whom you can’t help but form a bond of sorts. By the end he almost felt like a friend with whom I had embarked on a journey, and when the credits rolled, I missed him. How many films can you really say that about?
A Startling Debut
A Death in the Gunj is a fine film by any assessment. It’s enjoyable, relatable, interesting, relevant and so strangely absorbing. The film sees national award-winning actress Konkona Sen Sharma take the director’s seat, and she leaves the word ‘debut’ all but redundant, with a film which conveys her as nothing short of a seasoned filmmaker. She offers up such mature, layered storytelling, akin to only what the best kinds of films provide. The tone will appeal to those looking to be superficially entertained, as much as it would to those who seek deeper meaning and emotional resonance.
The story tells of a gathering of the Bakshi family, featuring Nanda Bakshi (Gulshan Deviah), with wife Bonnie (Tilotama Shome) and wider family, including young cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). Set in the small town of McCluskiegunj in Jharkand in the late ’70s, Nanda also reunites with childhood friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh).
The film unfolds over seven days, counting down to a fatal tragedy, a structure which works marvelously to keep the narrative progressing, as well as to keep the tension building in an increasingly palpable way. This is all the more heightened by the rich milieu created, which is nothing short of atmospheric, due to the beautiful visuals from Sirsha Ray, delightfully capturing the simple beauty of the Indian countryside. Equally, the music from Sagar Desai washes over you from the opening frames, and is as warmly upbeat as it is tensely sinister, in tone with the film. It is a fine example of what cinematic music should do – heighten emotion without the need to overpower, something mainstream cinema could really take a cue from.
The screenplay from Sen Sharma, and story from Mukul Sharma present a host of memorably well-realised characters, with even the smallest roles being given commendable significance. Even the house help are given due attention in the narrative, which is so dishearteningly rare to see onscreen due to the inherent classism of commercial Hindi cinema. In that sense, it almost felt somewhere reminiscent of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, which did the same through the character of the maid Alice, also played by Tilotama Shome.
The admirable casting offers a rich blend of seasoned performers who mesh together beautifully, and more than their individual talent, of which there is plenty, what shines through is their collective chemistry. More so, it is the way in which Sen Sharma uses them to create the quintessentially Indian familial chaos which we so often experience every day, with so many feelings, emotions and egos flying around all at once.
In terms of the specific performances, not enough can be said about Vikrant Massy, who oozes purity, innocence and sensitivity as Shutu. Ranvir Shorey shines as always, with an undeniable energy as Vikram, lighting up every scene he’s in. Tilotama Shome, as Bonnie, proves yet again that she is one of the most underrated actresses we have today.
Rich In Relevance
Among the film’s greatest strengths are the various themes it explores, which are rich in relevance, and it is in this relatability that A Death in the Gunj becomes the moving experience that it is. Through the juxtaposition of Shutu against the other male characters, the film explores traditional notions of masculinity, and how sensitive men are ostracised simply for being different, given that he lives in a world where direct bouts of aggression and violence are chalked up to “boys will be boys”.
The film speaks of the inherent loneliness and isolation people can feel in a world overflowing with so many loud voices. Not to mention the heartfelt friendship that Shutu has with his 8-year-old cousin Tanni, which so sweetly signifies that often the most misunderstood people can only truly connect with the purity and innocence of a child, as yet untainted by the biases of life. In that sense, Shutu’s character and presence felt starkly familiar to Charlie, the central character from The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, who has a similar disposition.
A Death In The Gunj additionally explores the complex concept of family, who can so often be the most damaging entities in our lives, rather than the necessary source of support. I’m personally also a sucker for films that portray language in a more natural setting, as we see it in day-to-day life. We are such a diametrically vast collision of cultures and language, and the film mirrors this with characters frequently jumping from Hindi to English to Bengali.
In the end, Sen Sharma makes a marvellous debut as a powerful storyteller, resulting in one of the best films you will see this year. A Death in the Gunj makes for such an enriching, thought-provoking and self-reflective experience. It’s a film which talks about the forgotten members of our societies and families who are so easily underappreciated, ignored, and unseen. I, for one, hope that this gem of a film doesn’t find the same fate.
What do you think? Was A Death In The Gunj one of the best directorial debuts this year?
A Death In The Gunj has no international release date as of yet.