Some of the best films in our country get minimal screen time thanks to big fat Bollywood blockbusters, which fail to deliver more times than one would wish to count. A Death In The Gunj belongs to the first category. It hit the screens on 2nd June after winning accolades in the festival circuits and has already been pushed to the furthest suburban venues after a week, despite getting in full houses. I guess we should thank our stars it got a release!

It is rather difficult to review a film that has more layers than phyllo pastry, but one has to try! Based on a short story by her father Mukul Sharma, this film marks Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut.

The name is self explanatory; the posters and promos show us a gun and a car, so it does not take a rocket scientist to figure that someone dies in the film which involves a journey. The opening shot confirms the assumption while the rest of the narrative gives us little hints of doom and death in various subtle and not so subtle forms. A fragile moth preserved within pages of a book, a seemingly solemn seance, the almost bestial feel of the group singing with local tribals around a bonfire, visit to a cemetery, a missing child, a lost adult, relationships that are nowhere as perfect as they seem……all take us inexorably towards the end we anticipate but do not quite know how to deal with.

McCluskieganj is a small hilly town about 40 miles northwest of Ranchi which used to have a significant Anglo-Indian community at one time, says Wikipedia. What Wiki fails to mention is that this town used to be a favourite go-to place for the adventurous Bengali who liked nothing better than go off for hawa-badal (a change of scenery) to the immediate neighbouring states.

Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) is driving to his parents place in McCluskieganj with his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome) and daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) in a blue ambassador. Accompanying them are Nandu’s younger cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). Nandu’s parents, the Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja) live in an old world bungalow tended to by local helpers who are not terribly thrilled with the advent of a bunch of city dwellers who expect to be waited on and entertained. In McCluskieganj is Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), the recently married local royal brat, and Nandu’s childhood buddy and Brian (Jim Sarbh), Vikram’s constant chaperone.

That Shutu is as uncomfortable as he is unwanted becomes apparent from the begining. Shy, awkward, sad and the butt of unkind jokes and pranks, he lights up only at the sight of Mimi, who is too busy with Vikram to notice him. His only loyal companion is little Tani who is bored with a bunch of adults and seeks out the person closest to her in age. The most poignant moment in the film is possibly one of Shutu returning home after a particularly harrowing experience to find the entire family and friends gang seated around the dinner table, excitedly talking and laughing with no notice of his absence and no concern for his safety. It reminded me of the scene from 36 Chowringhee Lane where Violet (Jennifer Kendal) stands outside Samaresh (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and Nandita’s (Debashree Roy) home on Christmas eve only realizing she meant nothing to the people she had considered friends and loyalists.

The casting is inspired. Gulshan Devaiah and Tilottama Shome look and behave married, with their easy camaraderie which cracks to reveal guilt and accusations piled up in layers over years. Kalki Koechlin is perfect as the bohemian free spirit who does not let traditions or society dictate how she should live her life. Om Puri and Tanuja get relatively less screen time but hold their own with the former being particularly delightful in his role as the alcohol-happy, retired father. Ranvir Shorey is every inch the spoilt, entitled royal heir who gets away with pretty much everything including dalliances while being worshipped by his new wife. Jim Sarbh is quiet and understated, a perfect foil for Shorey’s larger than life presence. Arya Sharma is delightful as Tani, the little girl who does not have a single irritating moment, unlike most movie kids. This brings us to Vikrant Massey who you would have seen in Lootera and Dil Dhadakne Do. Massey’s face has a melancholic innocence which makes him perfect as Shutu, the young man who’s reticent presence is pivotal in the film. Massey’s vulnerable face, his puppy-like, desperately eager to please adoration of Mimi makes you want to protect him from the rest of the group, the so-called cool people who breeze through life with minimal worries, ridiculing those who fail in the attempt.

Getting a tremendously talented ensemble cast together is easy. But making them deliver just as much as the film needs without any of them going over the top is a fabulous achievement and Konkona Sen Sharma manages this in her first film as a director. Each character is fleshed out perfectly; each person uniquely different from the next yet they all blend together seamlessly. There is attention paid to the minutest detail; Aparna Sen has been used marvellously as Shutu’s mother’s voice on the telephone. All the actors even managed to speak Bengali with barely any accent, a feat seldom achieved! I felt I was watching an opera, with a multitude of talented musicians who managed to perform for 2 hours without a single note going wrong, guided by the invisible director. While it is too early to predict the future, I have a feeling this tremendously talented actor will go on to make some (I hope many!) more wonderful films.

Those who have not trooped to theatres to watch this film last week, please do so pronto. And should you miss it on screens, this is definitely a movie you want to store in your digital library. I know I would want to see it a couple more times!

 

Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa June 2017

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