Film Review: A Death in the Gunj
It’s fitting that one of the first credits in A Death in the Gunj is of co-producer MacGuffin Pictures. Alfred Hitchcock—who popularised the MacGuffin, a plot device that’s a smokescreen for the film’s real intentions—sets The Trouble with Harry into motion with a darkly comic shot of a little boy looming large in the frame, staring down at a dead body. The opening shot of A Death is similar, with two men peering at something in the trunk of their car. We’re not shown what it is they’re seeing, but it’s a body of some sort and it’s starting to reek.
I’ve seen Konkona Sensharma’s film, her first full-length feature, twice now (it opened the Mumbai Film Festival last year), and the opening is perhaps the only aspect of it that doesn’t sit easy with me. It sets up the narrative as a series of events leading to a death—reinforced by a time frame: we know it’ll happen in a week. I think this Agatha Christie construction is a limiting way to experience this seductive, warily beautiful film. It’s also unnecessary. Even if it hadn’t begun with an off-screen corpse, the film is haunted by death, suffused with it.
Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and their eight-year-old daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) are visiting his parents—the wonderfully paired Om Puri and Tanuja—in McCluskieganj, a sleepy forest retreat in Jharkhand. Travelling with them are Nandu’s younger cousin, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), and Bonnie’s friend, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). They’re joined there by two more friends: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), newly married but still infatuated with Mimi, and Brian (Jim Sarbh), whose sideburns are a poem. It’s the last week of 1978, and everyone’s looking to bring in the New Year with a bang—all except Shutu, whose timidity barely masks his jumpy mental state.
Almost from the start, a delicate tapestry of death is woven. A frog wanders into the bathroom and the maid is called on to dispatch it. Shutu shows Tani a dead moth pressed in the pages of his book. Later, he reads aloud his favourite words with the letter “e”; the first one is “eulogy”—hardly surprising, given he’s still grieving for his recently deceased father. As his mental state frays, he incinerates a bug with a magnifying glass. The local baker places flowers and a sponge cake on her daughter’s grave. There’s also a séance, an event at the heart of the short story by Mukul Sharma (the director’s father) that this film is based on.
As several critics have noted, A Death bears more than a passing resemblance to Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri, another film about upper-middle-class Bengalis on vacation in small-town Bihar. But I was also reminded of Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, in which a child disappears and a group of family and friends on vacation cracks under the strain (it should be noted that Farhadi loves MacGuffins too). There’s even a hint, perhaps, of Fanny and Alexander in the coming-of-age portions and the conga line that echoes the Christmas party scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film.
In my second viewing, I had the opportunity to notice details I’d missed the first time around: the remarkable hard winter light on Shutu’s face, captured by cinematographer Sirsha Ray; composer Sagar Desai transforming Auld Lang Syne into a Moriccone-like aria in the final scene; the way the puppy that Tani insists they adopt eventually becomes the responsibility of the house help. I also had the pleasure of confirming what I’d suspected the first time: that this was one of the most stunning ensembles in recent Indian film. Shorey is marvellous as the appalling Vikram but the heart of the film beats for Koechlin and Massey. When Mimi tells Shutu, “Run along now”, we can sense the power she wields over him; when she says, “You’re so pretty, you could be a girl”, we know he’s done for. Both characters are different kinds of fragile—it’s just that she’s hardened and he has no defences.
There are many large and compelling reasons to watch A Death in the Gunj. Here’s a small one: It’s a beautiful goodbye to Om Puri, who died this January. There he is, saying “Nothing gets better at this age” in that instantly familiar rasp. There he is again, getting drunk, confusing his granddaughter for a tortoise. He doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do in the film, but he still manages one great moment. In one scene, his character shuffles around the house at night, disoriented and half-awake. When Nandu tries to talk him into returning to bed, that famous Puri irascibility rises to the surface. “Am I the father, or are you?” he demands of his son.