The novel The Great Gatsby is filled with memorable lines. One of my favourites is the narrator Nick’s description of two of the main characters, Tom and Daisy. He calls them careless people.
Nick says: They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
I remembered these lines as I watched A Death in the Gunj, which is also a film about careless people. They aren’t evil or even actively awful. They are just careless. But their small slights and casual cruelties inevitably lead to tragedy.
A Death in the Gunj is based on a short story by Mukul Sharma, which in turn was based on true events. It’s the winter of 1979. The narrative unfolds over one week of vacation in sleepy McCluskieganj. Family and friends have gathered. Old romances are rekindled, there is drinking and games and even a séance in which they try to summon passing spirits.
It seems like harmless fun but the undercurrents of death and a deep, abiding melancholy are strong. Especially in Shutu, a 23-year-old boy, who recently lost his father. Shutu is the type of sensitive young man who has a list in his diary of his favourite words, which start with E – this includes esoteric and eclectic. He is hesitant, vulnerable and inherently decent. He can’t cope with the brash and selfish adults so he spends most of his time with his eight-year-old niece. But even she wants him to do her bidding. Shutu is the family’s flunkey – everyone is always asking him to do chores. No one takes the time to notice the desolation and flashes of rage in his eyes.
Director Konkona Sen Sharma tells Shutu’s haunting story with economy and control. There isn’t a wasted expression here. It’s a remarkably assured debut. Konkona has created full bodied characters and then assembled terrific actors to portray them. Each performance hits the mark– from Kalki Koechlin’s seductress Mimi to the late Om Puri as the cheerfully growling patriarch to Ranvir Shorey as the hot-tempered, bully.
But the heartbeat of this film is Vikrant Massey as Shutu. Vikrant’s eyes register every emotion – Shutu’s vulnerability, his confusions and especially his hurt. His infatuation with the smouldering Mimi can only end in pain. His seduction scene is one of the best in the film – an imbalanced chair and clenched knuckles tell us everything we need to know.
A Death in the Gunj is suffused in soft light and sadness. Konkona and DOP Sirsha Ray create a fully realized world, which slowly unravels in front of our eyes. Death is in the title so clearly it’s no surprise. And yet when it comes, it’s like a punch to the gut.
This film will seep into your skin. Hours later, I was thinking about Shutu and his scars, including the ones he leaves behind.