I am writing this on a flight back from a blissful week spent at home (Kolkata). There is something to be said about the romance of writing while flying. Home is where I go to reconnect with myself. My dates with my mother often include movies and this past week we went to watch A Death in The Gunj. The film marks Konkona Sen Sharma's directorial debut and it only made sense for me to watch it in Kolkata, a city that celebrates families steeped in fanciful culture. I am not a critic of Kolkata's band of intellectuals and respectable lineages at all. On the contrary, I was at times envious that there was no bonedi bari (ancestral Kolkata house) lending gravity to my nuclear family which has mostly lived outside Kolkata. That being said, there was no pretentiousness ruining A Death in The Gunj. Konkona has done justice to doing the job of a storyteller in the movie.
The year 1978 is about to draw to a close in a couple of days, as a 'sky-blue' ambassador rattling along shady, winding paths leading to McCluskiegunj takes us into the story.
Storytelling seems to blend excellently with a trip back home. The movie, A Death in The Gunj, does exactly that to an extent. It plays with a self-aware audience's nostalgia. It makes you pull out memories of the dust — trips to visit grandparents, afternoon naps during these dutiful visits, the uneasiness of puberty, growing pains, lemonade, avoiding being sidelined during a game of cricket or kho-kho, mangoes, lanterns, and the way adults confused children at times by their behaviour. It transports us to a time before we became cynical, or rather, the time which is responsible for the cynics we have become.
The film is an adaptation of a short story and it preserves the self-sufficient nature of a short story. The year 1978 is about to draw to a close in a couple of days, as a 'sky-blue' ambassador rattling along shady, winding paths leading to McCluskiegunj takes us into the story. Every character in the film suffers. The film takes time to let the suffering become apparent. Objectively, A Death in The Gunj is a thriller surrounding the coming of age pains of a 23-year old, painfully shy man, Shyamal Chatterjee, who is known by his pet name Shutu. Shutu takes a trip to his aunt's place in McCluskiegunj — a real town situated in what is the state of Jharkhand now and was undivided Bihar back then — along with his cousin's family. His cousin's troupe is a bourgeois Bengali bunch. Their 1970's style flared bottom jeans and free spirit add to the delightful liveliness complementing the dark story line. These daring, indulgent young adults try to call spirits in the film (according to my mother, this used to be a fad at the time).
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the underlying dialogue on masculinity.
Shutu is the mistreated, bullied underdog of the family. He has recently lost his father and is moved when he stumbles upon his father's clothes in the old house. He is wearing his father's sweater at all the key moments in the film. Disregarded by the young adults, he spends a lot of time with his adolescent niece, Tani. He also loses his virginity during this brief trip to McCluskiegunj but the tryst does not wrap up well for him. Sex lends to the beauty of the film, used subtly but with no moral restraint.
One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the underlying dialogue on masculinity. Shutu's cousin's friend, Vikram, is a brash, arrogant, violent, hot-headed, bike-riding man. Vikram is a poster 1970's Indian 'fuckboy'. He loves guns. He breathes life into this little community of characters every time they hang out. Shutu, on the other hand, is quiet, respectful, soft-spoken and sensitive book lover. Both Vikram and Shutu feel threatened by each other in the film. His insecurities come to the fore when he beats Shutu up at the end of a seemingly innocuous game of kabbadi.
While prevailing notions of masculinity allow plenty of room for Vikram's brash personality, they don't have much space for Shutu's personality.
While prevailing notions of masculinity allow plenty of room for Vikram's brash personality, they don't have much space for Shutu's personality. The film underscores that society participates in ruining the lives of both, the Vikrams and Shutus of the world, when the elderly matron (played by Tanuja) explains away Vikram's uncalled for kabaddi game outburst, saying, "Boys will be boys."
When Nandu (Shutu's cousin) and his wife, Bonnie, are discussing the kabaddi debacle, Nandu derides Shutu for being emotional and distraught about his father's death. In today's lingo, he feels that Shutu should 'man-up', and get a job and take care of his mother. The macho-ism that Vikram has to live up to does him no good either. He clearly does not buy into the life decisions he has made. Repressed emotions have more than one victim in this beautifully narrated story.
At the end, you are left with a lot of questions. You are also left with a satisfied heart after watching a gripping story, poetic in its narrative and artfully put together.
At the end, there is a death. There is an unexplained closing scene. You are left with a lot of questions. You are also left with a satisfied heart after watching a gripping story, poetic in its narrative and artfully put together. As we were walking out of the movie theatre, my mother asked me, "Do you think there is a Shutu in every family?" I am not sure. I know two things — the question my mother asked is a poignant one and A Death in The Gunj is a movie worth watching.