All our travel plans were relegated to the backburner in 2020. Suddenly safety and health became of prime importance. However, thanks to the boon that are our streaming services, we managed to safely travel the world from within our homes. Under such circumstances, a destination film would be nothing short of a blessing – allowing us to travel the world without moving an inch from our comfortable couches. But what I realised was this: that destination films, which on the surface appear to be merely a journey from Place A to Place B, serve important purposes – they are metaphors for journeys that take place within, for voyages undertaken in the subconscious. All travel, whether physical, obvious and seen or psychological, metaphorical and unseen, brings with it certain kinds of discoveries. Our films have decided that these are mostly pleasant, which is not wrong, frankly speaking. But what if some trips don't give us the discoveries we intended to find?
A Death in the Gunj is one such film. Konkona Sensharma's breakout directorial debut, on the surface, is a simple story – it chronicles one week in the life of a family who have gone to the quaint town of McCluskieganj for a holiday to ring in the New Year.
There are certain features one has come to expect as an audience from destination films – that they inevitably bring with them the prospect of growth, of change, of a certain kind of coming of age. Dil Chahta Hai appropriately epitomised this – its protagonists outgrew the headiness of youth and took their places in the world as responsible young men. A Death in the Gunj could also classify as a bildungsroman but it is not the kind one expects. There is growth here too, but it is a growth in violence, in sadism, in inhumanity. There is change, but the change is for the worse. The protagonist, Shutu (a brilliant Vikrant Massey), a sensitive twenty-three-year-old trying to cope with the loss of his recently deceased father, comes of age (perhaps a tad too early as compared to most other male protagonists in Hindi films) but his coming of age is marked by confrontation with a ruthless society that will not allow him the space that he deserves, a society that wants to 'toughen him up' as per the toxic patriarchal norms established.
Most destination films show their protagonists break free from the shackles that have held them back but A Death in the Gunj shows us that society, unfortunately, does not always mirror art – as the film progresses, Shutu is bound and confined further and further, until there is no chance for escape.
Everyone's favourite destination film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara had a fun activity that we all remember and, I am sure, want to try as well – the one involving facing one's fears. These fears are mostly the kind that require the person to put themselves in a situation that would cause that fear (for example, Arjun's fear of water). In A Death in the Gunj, however, Shutu is present in a fear-inducing situation all the time and it is not even something he can control. He lives perpetually in fear every single moment of his life. Bullied, traumatised and harassed, he has no option but to face his fears. There is no catharsis upon facing that fear like with Arjun. Instead, every single moment spent in that fear adds to his stress and is a cause for his eventual breakdown.
Most destination films emphasise discoveries. In fact, this is the most important element in a destination film. These discoveries often are positive, as I have already mentioned. The protagonists find that they are worthy of loving and being loved. They embrace life with open arms. There is change in those around them as well – either they learn to accept the protagonist for the person that they are or the protagonist learns to deal with them in an appropriate manner.
We are not given the satisfaction of these pleasant discoveries in A Death in the Gunj. The film shocks us. We watch uncomfortably, as the plot progresses and the true natures of those around Shutu slowly begin to unravel. As an audience, we are forced to confront a harsh reality – that even so-called respectable, élite, privileged people, people like you and me, are capable of violence, humiliation, harassment and cruelty of the worst kind, masquerading under the garb of 'harmless jokes' and 'fun pranks'.
Shutu cannot embrace life either. Pushed to the brink and to the point of no return, his liberation is one that is marked by tragedy. He achieves catharsis in the ultimate emancipation – death. Only then is he truly free both of himself and of those around him.
A Death in the Gunj is the last film one would think of when one attempts to list one's favourite destination films. It does not call to mind the vivid imagery of white snowcapped mountains half hidden by the mist. It does not remind one of fun and frolic with friends at a scuba diving session. Its atmosphere is tense and simmering, its surroundings pretty but artificial, its circumstances dichotomously banal and straightforward as also horrifying.
Yet it forces us to think. Reflection is an underrated form of travel. It is a journey we would much rather not undertake. It is one holiday we would much rather miss. And yet, films like these remind us of why we need to embark on such journeys more often. It forces us to travel to the innermost depths of our soul where the darkness is hidden, to confront the demons that reside within us and to fight them.
2020 may not have given us the opportunity to undertake our usual holidays and travel the world. But sometimes travelling the universe within us could count for more than all of these holidays combined.