I remember watching A Death In The Gunj in the theatres, two weeks after the film's release. Although the ridiculously unnecessary divisions between mainstream and art-house cinema urge the latter to be best experienced from the confines of your couch, I pity those who missed watching this riveting film on the big screen. And herein lies the greatest triumph of Konkona Sensharma as a director. The film, with its finely tuned atmospherics, spot-on production design, and poignant background score above everything else, manages to immerse the viewer in the slow yet dangerously violent world of McCluskieganj. This immersive feeling is central to the experience of viewing this film, which, to be fair, is a slow burn. But a few minutes into the narrative and one realises that this slow pace is perhaps not a deterrent but rather an essential writing choice on the part of the makers, a choice central to the experience of these characters and their various travails.
Death is writ large across the face of the film. The title warns you of death right away. The opening scene takes place outside a morgue. There is a formidable-looking gun placed high on the living room wall. There is a ghastly game of planchette. Insects are killed and buried. Two unlikely companions discuss a dead moth and the meaning of 'eulogy' on a languid winter afternoon. A rendezvous takes place in a graveyard. There is a literal manhunt. And finally, there is the death of innocence.
This innocence is not just symbolised but very much embodied by the character of Shutu, a twenty-something young man whose full name is mentioned in passing once and whose presence is more of an omniscient absence looming large over the narrative of the film. Shutu is sensitive. He is the butt of all jokes. He maintains a journal with a list of words that begin with the letter e. He weeps into the sweater of his deceased father. We often see male characters weep, but to mourn this explicitly for the passing of a male parent by a son is not so common a sight in our cinema. Shutu does not stop at being sensitive. He is constantly made to carry out chores and look after the kid of the house. Yet he is the one who knows the capital of Australia in a group of nine people. And he is the one who falls for the seduction of the femme fatale played to perfection by Kalki Koechlin. One of the most underrated balls of fire in Bombay right now, Ranvir Shorey, plays Vikram, the literal antithesis of the character of Shutu. He presents to us a side of masculinity that is more acceptable. Vikram is boisterous and loud. He is married but doesn't give two thoughts about sleeping with an old flame. He is a bully and takes sadistic pleasure in dominating over those weaker to him. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Shutu and Vikram fight in a game of kabaddi while a letter from Shutu's mother plays as a voiceover. It is stunning. On a symbolic level, this motif of conflicting masculinity is one of the central driving elements of the film. Vikrant Massey inhabits Shutu. His stares are empty initially. There is a certain dream in them when he tries, in vain, to please his lady love, Mimi. There is hurt in his eyes when the film rolls to a climax and, in the end, there is the only rage.
This performance grounds the film. And the perfection and pathos with which Massey executes this role go a huge way towards contributing to the success of this story, which is essentially a study of character.
How far can a person be pushed before he breaks once and for all? This question is asked of us repeatedly. Sirsha Ray, the DOP, bathes each frame in shaded sepia, imbuing the film with deep-seated nostalgia. There is a sense of loss, of something gone forever. This idea is present from the very first scene when the entourage stops to buy a cake from an Anglo-Indian lady. The house is barely standing and the woman visibly old. It is a definite homage to 36 Chowringhee Lane, which, upon reflection, was yet another meditation on loneliness. Only this time the Jennifer Kendall character is replaced by Shutu. Sen Sharma also pays two other very important homages. The image of a tyre swing from a tree and a sleepy old town at Christmas are elements that draw inspiration from To Kill A Mockingbird. The swinging tyre is a recurring symbol even in this film and one sees the link that Sharma tries to establish.
A Death in the Gunj is essentially a story about the kiss of innocence. A depiction of a world where innocence and sensitivity are not allowed to thrive but suffocated and made to embrace an early and violent death. We get a reference to Lolita as well in the carefully framed shot where Mimi is painting her nails as Shutu looks on with lusty eyes.
And by god, does this film nail lust! Another brilliant achievement of Sensharma's is her ability to choreograph her sex scenes through such a lens of sensitivity that the scenes depicting two acts of quite graphic sex do not become narratives about the acts. Rather they become about the immediacy of the emotions that propel the action. In one we see an act of fatal seduction involving an anxious novice. Sensharma ends the scene with a paper chip sliding from underneath the chair on which the couple makes love. It is poetic and brilliant above all. The second scene comes out of nowhere. It is a lazy winter afternoon. And people are going about their work when suddenly we cut to a maid knocking on a closed door on the other side of which a wife is performing oral sex on her husband. We never see the act. The camera is focused on the face of the husband and for a brief second we see the face of the wife as she raises her head to send away the maid. It is intimate and the fluid editing makes it look like an organic part of their daily routine. It is such a rare sight to see such well-thought and empathetically shot scenes of sex in our country that the few which come our way must be noted and appreciated for their immense worth.
Above all, A Death in the Gunj, despite a morbid narrative and a grim message, is a must-watch because it is, after all, a triumph of directorial vision and writing. Sensharma makes us look at the tiniest of things for beauty. But she also makes us aware that sometimes beauty can come accompanied by great cruelty.