Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj (2016)– IFFLA 2017


The setting of the story is a familiar one. A family goes on a visit with grandparents to welcome the New Year. Their friends join in too and slowly the fabric of their relationships unravels until it reaches a critical crisis. This is director Konkona Sen Sharma’s first film, based on a story told by her father, writer Mukul Sharma. With a distinguished film pedigree in the family and an accomplished record as an actress in Indian cinema, she marshals all the resources she can to manage an ensemble cast, recreating a late 1970s middle class family, which, with little trigger, is ready to spill its neuroses when they spend time together.

The film is set in McCluskiegunj in Jharkhand, once known for its Anglo-Indian community. The considerable social status of the family is evident in the leisurely lifestyle of drinking and hunting while the house owned by the uncle OP Bakshi (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja) has the old Victorian class. Younger generation speaks English, with convent-school-shaped accents. Language and gestures speak of the 1970s-middle class generation, before it was entirely taken over by the neoliberal ethic. Sen Sharma has recreated the period with delicate touches, colors are tinged with a rural brown without excessively spilling into the frames.

When Nandu  (Gulshan Devaiah), wife Bonnie (Tilotama Shome) and their daughter Tani arrive with their cousin Shutu (Vikrant Messey). Bonnie also brings along her friend, Mimi (Kalki Koelchlin). Their other two friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) join in as well. We learn that Shutu, the reclusive and reserved cousin, after recently losing his father, appears to wear more than grief on his sleeves. He is emotionally distant from others, particularly from the bullyish Nandu as he is slow to catch on to the pressures of his family. His recent record as a graduate student appears to weigh him down too, giving another reason for the family to look at him with a pitiful, permanent disrespect.

Over seven days, we watch the family members act out their repressed and wayward desires. Newly married Vikram cannot repress his libido and wants to return to his earlier sexual relationship with Mimi. Nandu and Bonnie find their vacation time to rekindle their sex lives, though it is focused on Nandu’s lust. The “foreigner” Mimi dispenses her libido to placate Vikram when he is aggressive and Shutu, when is most coy and needy. Over food, sex, and drinks, the family members labor to play out their stations in the mores of their class. There is even a séance (planchet as it is called in India), meant to scare away Shutu’s soft disposition.

Sen Sharma has based this film on the short story her father, Sharma used to tell her. That story, Sharma says, was itself based on a real incident around a séance.

Shutu remains the centerpiece in the narrative, as it focuses in second half on his troubles. His encounters with Tani are meant to play out our perception that characters that children sympathize with are generally more humane, more appealing that the cold ones around them. He is not part of the hectic obsession of others who are bent on playing the script of leisurely class, drinking, dancing, eating, and playing games. He finds himself alone with Mimi when they are both stricken with rejections of their ow n and has sexual relationship with her. Mimi’s presence in the narrative is meant to allow two different kinds of men, one with aggressive machismo and the other with unexplored sexuality.  When will Indian films get tired of extracting all they can with the stereotype of foreigner as forever willing to have sex?

Deftly handling a large cast, recreating a time and a culture with attention to details, and moving the narrative toward its inevitable resolution, Sen Sharma has made a confident first film. There are some gentle yet powerful moments in the film. Shutu cuddles with and buries his face in the sweater that his father left him, trying to find his father’s presence to rescue him from the pains of the present. That Tani, the only child in the family becomes his friend indicates his utter alienation from others. There is a gentle consistency to Sen Sharma’s visual style. She paints a time period with a rural brown hue, and emphasizes it in each scene with clothing, accents, and gestures.

Despite all this, the film displays texture without depth, an obsession of films that want to break the mold but always stop short of mapping out the archeology of conflicts and desires. The trope of taking a family to a remote place to uncover its deeper psychosis is not new. A Death in the Gunj has the right material at hand; a middle- class family that wallows in its own celebratory rituals. Instead of analyzing it, the film enjoys the futility of their lives. Indian cinema has always loved family narratives; here is one that can take a turn to dig deeper. We abandon examination in place of celebration. The film misses the geometry of images and the topography of desire in, for example, Lucretia Martel’s La Cienaga (2001). That film has the same premise; similar class disposition but utterly incisive introspection. Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film Aranyer Din Ratri, was set in the Jharkhand too, about a group of friends and a family. It portrayed the moral tapestry of gender relationships and community interactions. The characters were varied and complex. But this is not about comparisons; it is about a hope: Perhaps the first step as a director can afford only so much courage to entirely break the mold. The subsequent steps may be worth watching.

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