In this series, Film Companion picks movies of the past decade with great first and last shots and asks directors to break down how they came up with them, shot them and what their significance is.
Konkona Sensharma‘s 2017 drama begins with a corpse in the trunk of a car and then flashes back to the previous week to figure out whose it is and how it got there. When seven relatives gather at a family home in McCluskieganj for a week of fun that becomes increasingly uneasy, the stage is set for the inevitable gunshot. What ties together the film’s first and last shots is that they’re both seen through the perspective of the dead person.
Sensharma talks about how a story from her childhood and a recurring dream she had when she was younger influenced these shots:
A title like ‘A Death In The Gunj’ teases numerous possibilities – who died? how? When the film’s first shot is of two men looking down at a corpse stashed in the trunk of their car, the immediate implication is that they’ve murdered him. While the rest of the movie is more languid and melancholic, the opening, with its intrigue, makes for a great set up to a thriller.
“The way we watch films, we’re so trained in visual language. If there’s a particular shot or a certain kind of music, you start drawing conclusions. I wanted to mess with that, make the audience think it’s one thing and then go somewhere else. It’s a slice-of-life film but you also want the audience to go: Is this a murder mystery? Is this a whodunit?
The film is based on a set of true events my dad told me about when I was a kid. Shutu (Vikrant Massey) dies in the film and the real-life Shutu’s death is always something I had wanted to understand. I always liked the circular structure that the story had, there’s a false prophecy of death that then comes true because he fulfills it. If you see one event, then go back in time and see it in context and then see it again, it’s like seeing a painting for the first time, then reading up on the painter and that period and then looking at the painting again – it now has more meaning because there’s context.
The idea that the first shot would be of the trunk opening was there from day 1 because my dad told me how they had to transport the real-life Shutu’s body from McCluskieganj to Calcutta, back home to his parents, like that. What a difficult thing that was – they had the police permissions and everything, but to actually transport a dead body, of someone you know, is not easy. The body was decomposing, so before they went to eat at a dhaba, they had to park the car far away because of the smell. They had to put it in the trunk, they couldn’t keep it in the backseat, again, because of the smell.
When I started writing the script, it was supposed to be Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) opening the trunk. But I didn’t want people to think Vikram would stay alive through the film – he and Shutu are each other’s main adversaries, there’s a scene in which Shutu points the gun at him and I wanted audiences to think, ‘Maybe Vikram’s is the death in the Gunj.’ So I couldn’t have Vikram in that present-day opening scene and then try to build mystery in the flashbacks. So I replaced that character with Brian (Jim Sarbh).
I think we judge Nandu and Brian too harshly in the opening scene. There’s an element of callousness in how they dump the body but what are they supposed to do? Firstly the police have refused to transport it for them. Then the body smells. And they can’t put it in the backseat because it will move and fall.”
By the end of the film, we realize it was Shutu’s body in the trunk. In the final shots, he’s in the car once more, only this time in the backseat. He turns to look out at the receding road of McCluskieganj, a place he must leave, but one he’s never really belonged to. The road stretches out behind him, dark and lonely.
“When I was younger, I’d keep having this dream of a dark road with trees on both sides and the road would keep moving away from me and converging with the dark green of the trees in the background. When I went to McCluskieganj on a recce, I saw this image a lot because of the roads and their dense foliage. And that reminded me of my dream so I wanted it in the film.
You see Shutu again at the end and you’re trying to figure out if he’s alive but you realize he’s dead. So it’s a ghost or an emotional presence or a memory. He turns back to look at the receding McCluskieganj road and for me, it’s like he’s looking back on the past week to understand what happened in his life, in the same way that I was trying to understand the real-life Shutu’s story. It’s almost like he’s a ghost, stuck in a loop, reliving the past week of his life over and over again.
We actually shot that scene in reverse. We tried to shoot it normally, but we couldn’t back away properly with the camera. So we drove forward and then reversed that shot. If you watch that shot for a long time, you’ll see it slowly becomes lighter instead of darker. But I think it’s minor enough that you don’t notice. It’s a bit reddish because of the car’s tail lights – just one actually, because Shutu crashes and breaks the other when Nandu is teaching him how to drive earlier in the film.
The film starts with a black plate, which is supposed to be inside of the trunk, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the buzzing of flies. So it’s Shutu’s film – the first and last shot are both from his perspective.”