The very title of Konkana Sensharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj (2017) implies that someone will die. An instant reminder would be Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), but not as explicit as to directly let the audience know who is going to die. In ‘A Death‘, the knowledge is implicit, and made starkly clear that there had been a death in the opening scenes itself. But the film proceeds to trace the week that precedes this death, numbered from day one, revolving around the Bakshi family, featuring Nanda Bakshi (Gulshan Deviah), with wife Bonnie (Tilotama Shome) and wider family, including young cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). Set in the small town of McCluskiegunj in Jharkand in the late ’70s, Nanda also reunites with childhood friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh).
We are introduced to a family, and the scenes are built up in acquainting us with all of these characters clustered around each other, and slowly we realize what Sensharma is trying to do here, her film is not a murder mystery as you would expect it to be, like a strategic whodunit of sorts. She is more interested in these characters- how they react with each other in presence, and who they really are in person. It is a layered, critical examination of the silent dynamics of power and politics, unwavering in its observation of the minute. Shutu, superbly played by Vikrant Massey stands at the very centre. It is an unusual choice, to fix the focus on a character like Shutu- shy, timid, sensitive and observant- a far cry from the lead role that a typical Bollywood movie offers, one that has a lot to say and express.
In Shutu, Sensharma subverts the very concept of heroic masculinity, one that has to toe all the generic responsibilities of a hero. Shutu seldom speaks, or to put it better, is allowed to speak. His is a presence that doesn’t register instantly. Look closely and one can see how Sensharma established these subtle exchanges in the introductory scenes when no one registers Shutu’s real name, Shyamlal. A later scene involving the game of kabbadi is where Shutu is coaxed in without his wish, and it turns out to be one humiliating experience. “Boys will be boys” is what is summarized of this event, allowing a severe critic of traditional forms of masculinity by allowing Shutu as juxtaposition against the other male characters. Shutu’s sensitivity is seen as a drawback by the family, who expect them to own up and be tough.
A Death in the Gunj is a film where less is told, and for the most part it is showed- visually, or metaphorically. Shutu’s relationship with his father is one aspect that is never quite explored, but Sensharma brilliantly evokes this interrogation through the scene where Shutu finds an old sweater that belonged to his father and drowns his face in it. An instance like this at once cuts through the screen, and it allows the viewer to amalgamate from the visuals and conclude themselves. One can only imagine what Shutu must have felt with the passing away of his father, of having to live in the confinements of a home without a male support to look up to. A Death in the Gunj operates on various levels, much of which is left for the viewer to delve upon. None of the characters, incidents or parallels is dramatized to make the action opaque, and this adds to the rewatchability of the film. Sensharma allows her screenplay to unfold as precisely as it can, but also leaves a lot to the shore. Aided with the stark, poetic lens of Shirsha Ray, this is a world that is familiar and unpleasant, funny and furious, simple and mysterious- all at the same time. The family stands as a metaphor for the society that reflects the very core idea of survival of the fittest. It is as much a character study as it is an operative drama of family wrapped in disguise.
At the end, A Death in the Gunj leaves us with a family, and shows with haunting clarity how this very intimate space can be the most vicious and mysterious. Rather than being a support system, a family can ruin an individual from coming into terms with its own coping mechanisms in all its ruthlessness. Innocence is lost and a death takes place in the runtime of A Death in the Gunj. It all occurs within a week’s time, during a vacation. For a debut, Konkana Sensharma’s vision as a director remains sharp and clear, providing an uncompromising interrogation of toxic masculinity. At the end of it all, we have somehow realized we were one of them, succumbing to set demands of the patriarchy that has to be hid within the trunk of our mind.