The pitfall of being a celebrity kid—even from non-Bollywood—is that you’re always compared to your parents. If you’re lucky, you’re Shakti Kapoor’s child and anything you do seems like an improvement from the earlier generation. But if you’re the offspring of as talented a director as Aparna Sen is, there’s no way you can expect not to be held up to a higher standard than others while making your directorial debut. But Konkona Sensharma ensures with A Death In The Gunj that not only does she not fall flat on her face, she carves a niche for herself totally apart from her mother’s oeuvre.
Set in Bengal of 1979 (it’s located in McCluskieganj, Jharkhand, but the family is from Bengal), A Death In The Gunj is an ode to the bizarre Bengali family which we Bengalis consider normal. And a Bengal and way of life many of us who grew up in Calcutta—not Kolkata—are familiar with. Cutlets and caramel custard for dinner, people called Shutu and Mimi, a cousin (Vikram Massey who is brilliant as Shutu) who is studying for his M.Sc and applying for a PhD, the grandmother who smokes a cigarette and is fond of her drink but also believes in certain traditions, the parents who are young and were married at 23 and have a six-year-old child by their very early ’30s, a slightly femme fatale family friend, raging hormones, condescension, bullying—and general bonhomie.
I remember many families including ours packing up the pretty large household and traipsing off to our Darjeeling home in the Calcutta summer. In winter, families padded off to Santiniketan and so on. Similarly, in Sensharma’s film, a family—including Kalki Koechlin (the effervescent femme fatale, Mimi), Shutu (the college-going brother), Baani (the daughter), and the parents Nandu Bakshi (Gulshan Devaiah) and Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) head to meet Bonnie’s grandparents—Tanuja and Om Puri—at their home in McCluskieganj. There they meet their friends, Vikram Chaudhary (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian McKenzie (Jim Sarbh).
There’s an Anglo-Indian aunty who runs a bakery in town. There’s a tribal couple who works for the family. Picnics in the winter sun. The entire family, without the grandparents, getting together to conduct a planchette at night. Ghost stories. Scaring the pipsqueak in the family. Much drinking, surreptitious affairs, miffed hearts—and also an air of innocence with Baani and Shutu’s interactions.
The film, without giving away the plot, starts and ends with a dead body.
Where Sensharma scores is with the casting, which she in an interview has given credit for to Honey Trehan. I don’t recall the last time Tanuja acted so well and so on point—as the elegant, but affectionate mother and grandmother. Om Puri is delightful as the slightly curmudgeonly but indulgent patriarch, who likes his drink and seems to be losing his memory. Shorey is suitably sleazy and rambunctious. But the scenes are stolen by Massey as Shutu, the angst-ridden, sexually repressed Bengali boy, who swings between diffidence and nervousness. Any Bengali will tell you that they know at least one Bengali man like this, if not 10. He’s endearing in his unsureness, but almost piteous at some points.
Also Read: Film Review: A Death in the Gunj
The conversations are absolutely natural. As are the interactions. There’re two small conversations which Tillotama Shome has with Kalki Koechlin where she ticks off the latter for being drunk at a dinner, and another time for cutting the potatoes for the mutton curry incorrectly. It’s the concern and love and judgement with which only friends speak to you.
In spite of Sensharma’s denials, A Death In The Gunj kept reminding me of Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri when a bunch of city-slickers visit a jungle for a picnic—and the truths that are revealed over the course of their trip. It also reminded me of Ray’s Mahanagar about Kolkata’s privileged classes’ life in the ’70s. Sensharma has the same focus on conversation and dialogue, and less on events and incidents which can be a bit trying for people who don’t like slow-paced cinema. It’s also a welcome change to see a film which is not set in Bengal during the time of the Naxals or shows this poverty-stricken or emotionally stricken family, like Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara did with its ravaged characters—especially the women—who made you want to kill yourself by the end of it.
Speaking of ends, the climax of A Death In The Gunj is in one word—shocking—and what’s impressive is that Sensharma doesn’t try to neatly tie up the ends, because that would require another film. You make of the end and the motivations of the characters, what you will.
This film also celebrates a certain kind of women whom we’ve all grown up with in our milieu. And I’m assuming Sensharma has as well. Whether it was our independent and working grandmothers, who could cook, dress well and went to work, or the women who didn’t think twice about wearing jeans or being sexually forward or made a big deal about being equal partners in a marriage. And I think that’s where Sensharma wins out, because it’s a social set she understands. And which she, therefore, doesn’t get wrong while depicting.
To me, A Death In The Gunj was like a slice of the Bengal most of us only saw remnants of in our parents, and had the joy of growing up in. But it’s also a fabulous commentary on the destructive power of families, without realising the repercussions of our actions on family members. And, of course, it’s an ode to my favourite part of Bengal, which remains unchanged over generations, the angst-ridden, over-sensitive, well-read Bengali male who quakes at the sight of a sexually liberated woman or of having to actually go out in the world and hold down a real job.
Should you watch it? I’d say yes, just to see a new director attempt to tell a unique story and manage to do so quite successfully. And definitely watch it if you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Calcutta—there’s much to relate to.