MAMI 2016 – A Death In The Gunj Review – Unravelling a family mystery

Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is a suspenseful ensemble piece with solid performances and a haunting background score.

Director: Konkona Sen Sharma

Cast: Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin, Vikrant Massey, Om Puri, Tillotama Shome, Ranvir Shorey, Tanuja

Rating: 4 stars

A Death In The Gunj is a film that Konkona, the actor, would have chosen in a heartbeat.

It opens with the low-angle Tarantino trunk shot. We see the faces of two men from inside the trunk of a blue ambassador. They discuss the possibility of driving with this ‘body’ for eight hours to Calcutta. They look pensive, but not in a murderers-stuffing-corpse-in-car way. They’re standing outside a morgue. So this is more of a civilians-stuffing-corpse-in-car situation.

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One wonders why they – or anyone, for that matter –would decide on this absurd mode of transportation. What are they hiding?

For the rest of the film, we’re shown the events that lead to this scene. “Events” is not quite the term here; it suggests a suspenseful whodunit, a thematic ruse this storyteller utilizes to explore a more conventional language.

The puzzling futility of their trunk decision remains in tact though. But by the end, as a haunting Ennio Morricone-ish score rounds up the tale, you’re inclined to forgive this awkward bookend attempt. Because, by now, first-time director Konkona Sen Sharma has fashioned a sharply observed, slow burning, well-acted and strangely affecting film about…one week in McCluskieganj.

first-time director Konkona Sen Sharma has fashioned a sharply observed, slow burning, well-acted and strangely affecting film about…one week in McCluskieganj.

Family get-togethers are conflicted occasions. If they carry on long enough, they acquire the slow-burning chaos of jittery pre-wedding preparations. Only, there’s nothing to build toward. Instead, there’s usually a dramatic breakdown, an emotional drop of guard, a sordid tantrum or a startling revelation.

No matter who you are or where you’ve reached in life, the dining table in the family home recognizes your vulnerability. These trips are an escape from real life, but also an uneasy return to the environment that made you escape to real life. So much can be derived from the way two relatives embrace or shake hands after a long time. There’s a bit of history behind every word said, every glance thrown, every nostalgic story narrated, and every plate of food served. In a way, every visiting member is in a film of his/her own during this brief interval. For some, this visit could be a coming-of-age drama, and for others, a psychological thriller. For some, it could be an entertaining soap opera, and for others, a horrid reality show.

More often than not, all these genres break out after 8 PM, after that first drink, often turning into a full-fledged dark comedy by midnight.

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Either way, it’s not unusual for people to assume different roles on these holidays – everyone’s favourite couple (Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome), the reticent youngster (Vikrant Massey), the bohemian blonde (Kalki Koechlin), the obnoxious extrovert and his omnipresent pal (Ranvir Shorey, Jim Sarbh), the crabby old hosts (Om Puri, Tanuja) and the little baby of the family (Arya Sharma).

I can’t really get into too much of these characters and their equations without giving it away. But much like Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) earlier this year, it’s hard not to feel part of this family, warts and all. It’s hard not to look at them and feel like a child at a circus. Once they settle into own little spaces in the cottage, one slowly grows comfortable with their banter, their little spirit-calling adventures and restlessness at night, their private conversations and frisky stolen moments – to a point where one becomes distinctly uncomfortable.

much like Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) earlier this year, it’s hard not to feel part of this family, warts and all. It’s hard not to look at them and feel like a child at a circus.

Perhaps the title plays its part in getting us anxious throughout proceedings: you begin to expect the worst at the most inopportune hour, you wonder who it will be, you hope it isn’t so-and-so because now you’re invested in them, you gasp at old rifles and reckless bike rides, and every sound, shadow and incident becomes a little suspicious. The mood becomes somber, even across throaty laughs, polite hellos and scrumptious lunches. The undercurrents then feel a lot tenser than they are. The filmmaker gets a little playful with red herrings. But if you’ve been watching closely, there’s little doubt as to whose fate the title alludes to.

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The performances, as one expects from experienced theatre veterans, are solid across the board. The chemistry genuinely lends itself to a bunch of friends meeting after a while. And the outsiders look like they’re struggling to break in, which fits well in context of the film. Kalki is particularly beguiling; everything, from the way she flirts with a drawl to the way she smokes her cigarettes, is temptress-worthy. Perhaps we’ve grown too used to her quirky rebellious avatars in Hindi films. Her straight-faced poise here is hypnotic, only furthering her growing legend as one of our most improved and versatile actresses.

Kalki is particularly beguiling; everything, from the way she flirts with a drawl to the way she smokes her cigarettes, is temptress-worthy.

I’ve always thought Vikrant Massey (Lootera, Dil Dhadakne Do) is too expressive, too much of an overly intense eye-actor for his own good. In the sense, he has so much happening across his face – aside from the fact that he reminds of a cross between cricketer (quiet, sincere) Dinesh Karthik and actor (internal, raging) Dhanush. But I now see why that’s more of an asset these days. And I see how smartly Konkona has played off his mannerisms against the gang of verbose loose-limbed voices.  

There has also seldom been an Indian film with such a precise understanding of its background score (Sagar Desai). Economical acoustic guitar riffs and drifting flute notes are elevated by – and, in turn, elevate – so many of cinematographer Sirsha Ray’s wonderfully faded 70’s frames.

As a result, Konkona makes her film a bit of a festering personality – one that leaves a viewer with just the right sounds, just the anguished volumes, and enough inclusive faces. I walked out feeling terribly sorry, having experienced more of a tragic passing than an abrupt death. Perhaps the best compliment I can afford is this: A Death In The Gunj is a film that Konkona, the actor, would have chosen in a heartbeat.

 

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