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A Death in the Gunj movie cast: Vikrant Massey, Arya Sharma, Gushan Devaiah, Tillottama Shome, Kalki Koechlin, Ranvir Shorey, Jim Sarbh, Tanuja, Om Puri
A Death in the Gunj movie director: Konkona Sensharma
A Death in the Gunj movie rating: 3.5 stars
Have you been picked on? Bullied, humiliated, squashed? Call it whatever you want, but if you have experienced any of this, which is basically the same thing — belittling another being — you will find it hard to forget it. It is a deeply scarring thing: only if you are very lucky and very strong, will you be able to walk past it. But somewhere underneath, where you think you’ve safely buried it away, there may be a tiny residual spot, rearing to the fore again, turning you into that small helpless individual again.
Bullying, especially in impressionable childhood and adolescence, can change you in fundamental ways. It can make you a needy, clingy, ingratiating people-pleaser on the one hand, and an even bigger bully on the other.
Death In The Gunj, Konkona Sensharma’s assured directorial debut, unpacks this complex sentiment with feeling, and gives us a layered film with memorable characters about the games people play, and how, sometimes, that can have terrible consequences.
It is 1979 in McCluskiegunj, an old colonial outpost (in then Bihar, now Jharkhand) with its mix of sprawling bungalows, tribal household help, and Anglo-Indian ladies with their cake shops. Within minutes of the film’s opening, we see Nandu Bakshi (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillottama Shome), their young daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), accompanied by the sensitive young Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and the striking Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) arriving at the sprawling homestead they will spend a week in, hosted by the middle-aged Bakshis, played by Om Puri and Tanuja.
The sense of foreboding starts building up slowly, subtly. Nothing happens, and everything does, as the visitors begin finding the laidback rhythms of life in the gunj, intersected by the coming and goings of old friends, Vikram Chaudhary (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian McKenzie (Jim Sarbh). The languid picnicking (reminiscent in flashes of both Aranyer Din Ratri, and Picnic At Hanging Rock), the dinner party to welcome a new bride, the game of kabbadi: all activities to pass the time, all seemingly normal. But overlaid by simmering sexual tensions, marital compulsions, macho rituals, and cloying unease.
There is, as the film’s title baldly promises, a death. And it is devastating, even if everything in the film is leading towards it, even when you sense something terrible creeping upon these holiday-makers.
The clothes the actors wear are spot on. The setting is picturesque, not picaresque, and the characters are detailed without descending into caricature. But some clunkiness rears up once in a while: the way everyone speaks, in a mix of English, Bangla and Hindi is nicely natural but some lines and body language is ahead of the time; the late great Om Puri comes off unnecessarily lumbering in bits; and the biggest flaw is a tonal switch between a crucial opening scene, and a climactic one.
But these do not take away from the essence of the film, brimming with excellent performances. The characters are connected by old ties of family and friendship, who fall into the corrosive patterns established long back. Massey as the troubled, sensitive, unravelling Shutu, Koechlin as the bored, looking-for-arousal Mimi, Devaiah as the conventional husband-father easily nudged into whooping it up with the boys, and as easily prone to blaming his wife for things going awry, Sharma as the little girl both likeable yet demanding, Shorey as the blustery left-behind-in-a-small-town-not-quite-hick, Sarbh bringing up the rear, and the superb Tanuja (we need more of this actress): this is a thoughtfully-assembled ensemble played to its strengths.
Mood, atmosphere, story-telling: Sensharma ticks all the boxes. Can’t wait to see what she will come up with next.