You know a film has come from the heart when you notice its subtle intricacies and the nuanced portrayals in it. Most often, the filmmaker is aware of the unnoticeable nature of such elements. Yet, to perceive them is to devour the secret language in which the film speaks to you, the audience. Perhaps this is only the poeticism of an enthusiastic film buff. Perhaps it is the victorious glee of making another discovery in one of your favourite films, or perhaps, it is time to get to the point.
A Death In The Gunj (2016) is a movie that had a significant impact on me. When I first watched it, I did not expect to be so profoundly affected by it, not just as a storyteller but also as a human being.
Set in McCluskieganj, Jharkhand, in 1979, the film is contemporary in its approach. It depicts an upper-class, modern family visiting their hometown for the holidays. The director, Konkona Sen Sharma, embraces death in metaphors. While the film focuses on many themes from grief and isolation to masculinity, class and gender, what stood out for me was the death of innocence. Shutu (Vikrant Massey) seeks comfort in the most peculiar places: An old woollen sweater of his late father, a dead butterfly between the pages of his diary, and his notebook of 'e' letter words, the first of which is 'eulogy'. Even his innocence lingers around death, tempted to give in. The only place where it breathes is in the company of eight-year-old Tani (Arya Sharma).
Is it acceptable for a 23-year-old to mourn his father for mere months before the 'man up' army tears him away from his grief? The answer doesn't matter because, for Shutu, decisions come ready-made. Just like that, the beauty of childhood innocence is crushed by the brutality of the norms of adulthood and masculinity.
During a recent rewatch, a particular scene struck me.
On a lazy afternoon, Shutu and Tani, with childlike idleness, are basking in the sun. They are observing an ant with an old magnifying glass. Unable to withstand the sharp sunlight falling on it, the ant dies of heat. Death, again. Shutu and Tani bury it in the ground, marking the grave with leaves. Tani seeks the blessings of the holy spirit, Shutu follows, and they absolve themselves of the sin. Tani recites a poem from A. A. Milne's Now We Are Six (1927).
"When I was one, I had just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four, I was not much more.
When I was five, I was just alive.
But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever
So I think I'll be six now, forever and ever."
While she recites the poem, Shutu watches her through the magnifying glass. Through it, we see not just Tani's enlarged facial features, but also a smiling Shutu. It is only with her that he can be himself. Their innocence and honesty reflect in each other.
It amazes me how a single scene, a simple shot, could illustrate all that I can only try articulating with words here. That, I believe, is the power of the simplicity with which Sen Sharma captured the complexities of the story. The credit for conceiving it goes to her, but also to Massey for such a refined performance, and to Sirsha Ray, the cinematographer, for turning words into visual poetry. The sound design, editing, and art direction prove that the film was more than just a project. That is why even after years of its release, A Death In The Gunj refuses to leave me. Every visit to the film has me looking forward to the next time we meet.