Director- Konkana Sen Sharma
Starring - Vikrant Massey, Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Om Puri and Tanuja
Rating- I don't think I am even qualified or capable of encapsulating this gem in a number. But this is my first 5 stars in last 5 years that I have been reviewing films.
A Death in the Gunj starts with two men adjusting a dead body in the trunk of the car. 'Maybe if we bend the knees and keep the body in foetal position?' They discuss nonchalantly. This is a powerful scene as this insensitivity sets the tone of the film and prepares us for what's in store.
Shyamal (who doesn't like being introduced as Shuttu) is a 23-year-old sensitive man (played by Vikrant Massey) who has lost his father. A brilliant student otherwise, he has failed in his exams. He is visiting his aunt and uncle (Tanuja and Om Puri) with his cousins, Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), Bonnie didi (Tillotama Shome) and his little niece Tani (Arya Sharma). There are Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Brian (Jim Sarbh) and Mimmie (Kalki Koechlin) as family friends, sometimes playing audience to his tragedy, sometimes adding to it.
Never in a Hindi film before has a title been so powerful. A Death in the Gunj prompts danger, an impending tragedy. We see it creepily crawl on us right in the beginning of the film as this young bunch tries to call spirits in a dark room, playing a practical prank on poor Shuttu.
We hope an accident does not happen, when Shuttu tries to drive a car under his cousin's supervision or outshine the bully, Vikram, in a seemingly harmless game of Kabbadi.
We almost see 'the death in the gunj' in the pre-climactic scene when Shuttu comes face to face with a wolf. Death looms large. It seems to sneak up on Shuttu and us from the outside. How and if it arrives in the climax of the film, is the crux of this heartbreaking movie on repression and neglect.
Shuttu is let down, one by one, by everyone in the family.
Maushi Bakshi knows about Shuttu's bad performance in his exams and calls it 'weird irresponsible behavior' and presses him to call his mother against his will. She asks him to go back to his mother without asking him even once what's bothering him.
Everyone turns to Shuttu for small chores. In a scene at the lunch table, Shuttu feels excited sitting next to Mimmie, the girl he likes. At that very moment Bonnie asks him to pass her the shawl. He reluctantly leaves and loses the seat to Vikram, Mimmie's ex. In another scene, Mimmie flirts, 'Do you have time for a girlfriend?' when Maushi summons Shuttu to fetch her some custard. Heartbreaking.
Vikram, one of the family friends, is mean to Shuttu and adds to his misery. His cousin Nandu expects him to toughen up because 23-year-old men don't sulk, they get married. There is a tear-jerker of a scene where Shuttu is seen digging his face into the wall and bawling his eyes out in the middle of the night. Nandu sees Shuttu struggle, walks him to bed but doesn't even once ask him why he was crying. He doesn't even mention it to anyone in the family. It's right in front of him. It doesn't get more obvious than that moment, that Shuttu needs help. At this point, the film becomes universal, a subtle hint at how we abandon our loved ones.
Tani who is regularly neglected by her parents, bonds with Shuttu over dead moths and ants, over sketching and poems. Even Tani turns her face away from Shuttu towards the end. Why? Because Shuttu, for once, puts his needs before her demands. Tani's mother Bonnie is keyed into Shuttu's sensitive world. She tells everyone to go easy on him but she also turns bitter as she holds him responsible for a brief tragedy that strikes the family.
Shuttu finds some solace in love. He makes passionate love to the girl he is attracted to, without realising that he is just a rebound for her. From 'do you have time for a girlfriend' to 'you should concentrate on studies', Mimmie causes an insensitive, irrepairable heartbreak.
Even the house helps are condescending. In one scene, the servant, Maniya finds Shuttu fallen in a ditch; instead of showing any sympathy, he asks him why he was hiding there, like it was some hobby.
The film's success lies in its subtlety and real treatment. Shuttu is nursing a tragedy - the demise of his father. At no point does the film manipulate your emotions. There are no black and white flashbacks of Shuttu's childhood with his father, collaging in and out on the screen. It's not a Rakeysh Om Prakash film or Imtiaz Ali's recent 'Jab Stardom met Boredom', where flashbacks happen without any rhyme or reason. In fact we don't even see Shuttu's father. All we see is his sweater that Shuttu hugs and wears and a black and white picture in his wallet, that are enough to stir emotions within us.
The film scores high on atmospherics as well. You are transported to the winter of 1979 . The house, the furniture, even a Rubik's cube are used evocatively to create the mood and the period it is set in.
I particularly enjoyed how Konkana Sen Sharma breaks stereotypes around women. Mothers are expected to look or behave a certain way in our films and society. When they don't, they are tagged as smart/fast or sluts. Heroines, in order to challenge biases, are shown drinking and smoking. They are shown as promiscuous. On one hand, that works as it breaks away from the repression. On the other, it becomes superficial, unnecessarily glorifying some vices. A Death in the Gunj is subtle. Grandmoms have short hair, women drink and smoke as naturally as men without ever making it look like a statement or rebellion. It's so casually natural, like how it should be.
A Death in the Gunj also hints at class divides. The Bakshi family and friends make merry, celebrating New Year's Eve. The scene is smartly juxtaposed with the house help eating dinner from the same plate as the family's dog.
Konkana strikes gold and shows how sharp and precise a director she is, getting such nuanced performances from such a delightful pool of talent she deals with.
Everyone in the film is remarkable but the central character Vikrant Massey is a class apart. He uses his smile, eyes and body language to give you valuable insights into his vulnerability without ever making it too dramatic or in your face. The last scene where he helplessly apologises through his gritting teeth is a visual that will haunt me for months.
A Death In The Gunj is one of the most sensitive films ever made. It made me think about my childhood and my family. It makes you look around and see if you have deserted a loved one, especially when someone tried to reach out to you in their vulnerable times. I felt a knot in my stomach, fought tears as I walked to the parking lot, couldn't sleep for next two nights and made sure I checked on my family and friends regularly.
I don't think I can ever say it enough, but please watch the movie whenever you get an opportunity; on the internet, on a plane or most deservedly on the big screen.