Konkona Sen Sharma's maiden directorial venture A Death in the Gunj is based on a story by her father Mukul Sharma which was inspired by true events. Set in 1979, the film is the story of a family in the quaint old town of McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar. Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), their eight-year-old daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), Bonnie's friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), and Nandu's cousin Shyamal, also called Shutu (Vikrant Massey) are visiting Nandu's parents, Anupama (Tanuja) and O.P. Bakshi (Om Puri), in McCluskieganj. Nandu's friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh), also come to visit them. The story spans over a period of seven days to reach a point where a death of one of the family members takes place. The film also tells the story of how we ignore and forget certain family members, and the impact our actions and our words can have on them.
As the title of the film suggests, there is a lot of 'death' in the film. The film opens with Brian and Nandu talking about putting a dead body in a fetal position in the trunk of their car. At another stage, Shutu finds a sweater of his dead father in the cupboard. He smells and wears it as it reminds him of his father. In another scene, Shutu shows Tani a dead moth that he carries in his journal. Shutu also shows Tani a list of his favorite words starting with the letter E, and the first word on the list is eulogy, defined as a speech or piece of writing that praises someone who has just died. Later, Shutu uses a magnifying glass to focus light on a bug, as a result of it, the bug dies. Then, Shutu and Tani bury the bug. In another scene later, Mimi and Shutu visit a graveyard. In the final moments of the film, a family member dies. Thus, there are numerous references to death in the film.
In addition to death, there is an eerie post-death feeling related to spirits and ghosts that pervades the film. Early in the film, the family members talk about Vikram's dead neighbor Uncle Harris. Vikram tells them that Uncle Harris established contact with the living world using a wooden table. Harris' wife thinks he is alive. She had even invited Vikram to have a cup of tea with 'them'. Then, Brian tells them that sometimes, spirits inhabit people and objects, and they never leave. After that, the group starts planning to play planchette. They joke about calling Elvis Presley or Nehru (whose name was censored even in the online version of the film). Shutu is hesitant to join them because he feels that doing something like this would cause the spirits a lot of pain. Brian replies to him that spirits cannot feel pain as they are already dead. This is quite a telling scene as it expands Shutu's perception of pain. For him, pain manifests not just in the physical human body, but it is also experienced mentally, and it could be experienced either by a human or by an apparition existing in a post-death abstract space. The others can only see the physical aspect of pain, perhaps, that is why it is so hard for them to understand the melancholic state of Shutu, and they keep telling him to man up.
The feeling of spirits and ghosts continues when they actually play the planchette. No spirits really come and they take it as another opportunity to have some fun at the expense of Shutu by telling him that he is going to be the first among them to die. After their game, they join a group of tribal people in their dance. The tribals are singing another ghost-themed song in which people are asking a young bride as to where will she sleep because a ghost is lurking in the mulberry tree. A spirit dances on the mulberry tree, prancing about with ghostly glee. The house servant Maniya tells his wife Manjari that the family members are drinking spirits and calling spirits. In another instance of ghosts and spirits, Mimi and Shutu ride a bike to a graveyard where they see Mrs. Curney putting some flowers and sponge cake on the grave of her daughter Elizabeth who died when she was six. Mimi picks up the cake and forces Shutu to eat some of it. He does not like it because he feels that the cake is meant for someone else, even if the person is dead. In another related scene, Bonnie tells them that all their now dead pets are probably living together in heaven. Finally, Shutu himself had appeared as a spirit in the initial moments of the film. He was the one who had died; though at that stage in the movie, it was not clear who died, but when the movie finishes, it becomes clear that it was Shutu's spirit who was seen in the car with Nandu and Brian, like Rosie's in Talaash. Shutu had earlier asked as to why would spirits come back, and Brian tells him that that spirits come back as they have some unfinished business. Shutu's spirit also came back, perhaps, looking for some closure.
A Death in the Gunj also shows us two shades of masculinity and how the society treats men who are not able to mould themselves into a traditional masculine role. There is Vikram, the testosterone-loaded man, who is on one end of the spectrum, and there is Shutu, the sensitive man, on the other end. We see a contrast between the two of them in the film. Vikram is a charmer. He knows how to talk to everyone based on his/her interest. The first time he comes to the house, he brings a gift for Anupama prompting Brian and Nandu to remark that he is always 'buttering up' people. He barges into Mimi's room, and starts kissing her, despite being married recently to someone else. He cheats not only in his marriage, but in sports as well. He cheated in the game of Kabaddi that they were playing, and could not withstand that he could be defeated by someone like Shutu, going to the extent of injuring him to prevent him from crossing the winning line. At some other point, Mimi tells O.P. that Vikram goes on hunting―one of the most masculine activities―of wild boars. He hunts his prey not only in the jungles, but also among the people who cannot match his strength. In another telling scene of his obnoxious masculinity, after having dinner, he uses his wife's saree as a towel to dry his hands. It really tells that how he probably uses people and, then, throws them away. His wife refers to him as royalty and calls him Hazur, a term, typically, used for masters. When the laborers are not doing their work properly, Anupama asks Vikram for help and he says he will talk to the contractor. When Tani gets lost, he is the one who brings her back. He is the rescuer. At some other point, Vikram chides Nandu's masculinity when he refuses to go on a ride with him on a cold night, calling him 'old'. Vikram also carries a gun which he loves to show it to everyone.
Shutu, on the other hand, is the very opposite of Vikram. He is the dreamer. He is often seen near books. He keeps a journal in which he writes passages from his favorite books. He re-reads Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which is often described as a tale of modern alienation, focusing on an individual’s repeated failures to integrate into societies to which he does not belong―an apt description for Shutu as well. He has a Rubik's Cube, again a symbol of trying to fit the different colors to where they belong. All the people around keep telling him to grow up. He does not fit well with people of his age group, and his only true friend is Tani, his eight-year-old niece. He draws frogs in his diary. He likes to play indoor games, such as Chess, as opposed to Kabaddi, and seeks knowledge from history. He can't stay awake till midnight. At some point, Mimi tells him that he is so pretty that he could be a girl. After their lunch at Brian's place, Shutu, Mimi and Bonnie walk back to the house, and Shutu carries Bonnie's handbag with him. While Vikram is the rescuer, Bonnie and Nandu blame Shutu for Tani getting lost. He silently watches his crush Mimi and is unable to start any conversation with her. He apologizes just for touching Mimi's ankles when he is trying to help her. Later, it is Mimi who leads him to her room, and they have sex where she is on the top. Unlike Vikram who goes for hunting, the family members think that they will ask Shutu to take care of Fluffy when they go back to Cal. While one kills animals, the other cares for them. Shutu cannot drive a car (like Rahul in Kapoor & Sons), while Vikram drives a jeep. Anupama asks for Vikram's help to talk to the laborers, but she (and everyone else) treats Shutu like another laborer in the house doing their chores. Vikram is a Hazur, Shutu is a laborer. At some stage, Anupama even asks Shutu as to why has he not shaved as if he needs to be reminded of it. Vikram is a man, Shutu is still the twenty-three-year-old kid. All of these qualities are the very opposite of Vikram. Going by the traditional definition of masculinity, having some of these characteristics could make someone think that Shutu is possibly gay, but he is not. Hence, it might be even more difficult for him because there is nothing that he can really fight for. In addition, Shutu is battling depression. At one point in the film, he falls in a ditch in the jungle and has to be rescued. He is stuck in a hole, literally and metaphorically. And, the thing is no one realizes how terribly they are behaving with Shutu. Only Bonnie shows some sympathy for his state, but to everyone else, especially, to the other men, he does not matter.
I remember reading a story in the English language course from Class Tenth in school. The story is Anita Desai's Games At Twilight. The story is about a young boy Ravi. An older boy named Raghu often used to intimidate and bully Ravi. During a game of hide-and-seek, Ravi hides in a place where no one is able to find him. He stays there for hours hoping someone will find him. He realizes that to win he has to go out and touch the seeker. He is so excited that he is going to win as no one was able to find him. He runs towards the other children screaming that he won. However, the other children simply look at him awkwardly. The children had already moved on and were playing a different game. Ravi realized that he had been forgotten. Instead of being a winner, he was completely ignored as if he did not even exist. The story ends with these words, "The ignominy of being forgotten—how could he face it? He felt his heart go heavy and ache inside him unbearably. He lay down full length on the damp grass, crushing his face into it, no longer crying, silenced by a terrible sense of his insignificance." I was reminded of this story by looking at Shutu's plight. Other family members treated him as if he did not even exist. After Tani comes back, none of them even realized that Shutu is missing. It was Manjari who tells Anupama that Shutu is not at home. Maniya rescues Shutu, and he comes back and sees everyone smiling and enjoying, as if his existence had no bearing on their life. In earlier scenes, Bonnie tells Anupama how they had forgotten about their pet tortoise Haridas. They forgot to bring him back and he got lost. Also, there is the dog Fluffy who Tani wanted to keep as a pet, but in another scene, it is Manjari who feeds the dog, forgetting that he existed. Like the family members forget their pets, they even forgot Shutu, because, for them, he is nothing more than a pet.
There is a lot of detailing in the film that perfectly depicts a bygone era. The ten-paisa coins, the blue glue box at the post office, the ambassador car, the homeopathic medicines, Vicks Vaporub bottle, Salil Chowdhury's Dhitang Dhitang Bole and Elvis Presley's You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog, the poems Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne and A.A.Milne's Now We Are Six, the costumes, calling Kolkata 'Cal'—there is a feeling of nostalgia of the 1970s that the film evokes. As Konkona says, the film was a journey into her own childhood. The film has some really beautiful shots. I really liked the one where Shutu is touching tiny sugar cubes, and also, the one where Shutu is standing in a graveyard. The film lets the audience make sense of some things without explaining everything. For instance, on the day Tani gets lost, Manjari comes and knocks at the room of Nandu and Bonnie, it is hinted that they are having oral sex. There are also a lot of animals in the film, such as frogs, moths, ants, dogs, tortoise; even a wolf makes an appearance. I got a distinct feeling that this was another hint at the predator-prey relationship between Vikram and Shutu.
The film opens with a board welcoming people to McCluskieganj that says, "Your visit will surprise you." There is nothing much surprising about the final twist as it is quite discernible after a certain point as to what is likely to happen. It is also not surprising the Konkona Sen Sharma, in her debut as a director, makes a great film that has fine performances from everyone. There is not a single false note in any performance. Tanuja and Tillotama Shome are brilliant. It is funny though that I kept imagining Bonnie as Konkona because her voice was dubbed by her. But the film rests on the shoulders of Vikrant Massey's exceptional performance as Shutu. He has come a long way from playing Shyam in Balika Vadhu. Sagar Desai's fantastic musical score also deserves a special mention.
Trivia alert—The help at Brian's house Kitty who was shown licking the custard from the serving dish is actually quite a famous person in McCluskieganj. Her real name is also Kitty Texeira and is described by the locals as the face of McCluskieganj. She has featured on the cover of a book on the town, as well as in several documentaries and newspaper stories on the Gunj.
Books In Movies—
1.Shutu reads Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.
2.Shutu has a copy of the Second Form at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton.
5. Shutu has a book by Arthur C. Clarke
A Death in the Gunj is about alienation and estrangement. Shutu is struggling not only to come to terms with the death of his father, but also trying to be an adult in a society that does not accept his sensitive side. The only two people who were kind of his friends, Tani and Mimi, turned him away, and he was left all alone. In an earlier scene, Tani had asked Shutu as to why his name is not on the family tree. They had even put Mimi's name, who was a friend, on the tree, but Shutu's name is not there. In the final moments, silenced by a terrible sense of his insignificance, he kills himself, leaving his blood marks on on his tormentor and a tree as a symbol of his existence.
Dialogue of the Day:
"You are so pretty. You could be a girl."
—Mimi, A Death in the Gunj