Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is as expected- a film that progresses slowly with little plot and music (save for two renditions of Aud Lang Syne and two folk songs) and somehow still manages to stay with you like an eerie shadow.
We know at the start that someone has died and is being stuffed into the trunk of a car. What follows is the re-telling of a week’s story- A family vacation set in the 70’s in a scenic hill-station with a potpourri of family and friends who’ve come together for a week. Nandu and wife Bonnie with eight-year old daughter Tani are visiting Nandu’s parents. Accompanying them is Bonnie’s cousin, Shutu, and her friend- Mimi. They are joined by friends Vikram and Ryan who live in Mccluskiegunj.
The film has its flaws but I’d recommend watching it for one reason- Vikrant Massey. Playing Shutu, a young withdrawn man who inevitably becomes everyone’s target for a joke or a punch. He says little with his words, letting his eyes work their magic, seducing us with an acquiescence of expectations from family and society that do not meet his own. I am floored by his restrained performance that perfectly portrays a quaint solitude.
For me this film is not about death but sadness; the inexplicable kind whose origins can never be traced because of the tangled layers of disappointment and pain that sprout from the act of living, where you’re so good to the world around you and yet it fails you every time, how painful it is to wake up and go to bed everyday with the anvil of loneliness plunging deeper within. Massey has done full justice to his role as Shutu and is supported by a cast that enables him to shine quietly.
Shutu is my favorite type of character- a Gatsby, a Van Gogh; too beautiful to exist amongst humans. With every provoking incident , the glaze in his eyes darken. His closest friend is eight-year old niece Tani, a relationship that has been handled with the delicacy of a glass-blower, breathing nuance into silent expressions and smiles.
Second to Massey is Koechlin as the svelte Mimi, flaunting her long legs and smoking cigarettes with the panache of knowing she can attain whatever she wants. We all know a Mimi – self-absorbed, callous, a breathtaking goddess who takes the liberty of stomping around without a care for consequences. She takes pleasure in taunting Shutu and breaking his heart.
Apart from the themes of death and loneliness, there is the recurring toxic masculinity showcased through Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Nandu (Gulshan Devaiyah). Vikram is that testosterone-loaded friend who can floor the crowds with his charm. He gets away with cheating, bullying and even violence. You watch him being a king-sized asshole to Shutu and yet no one stops him. Mimi chooses a married Vikram over a devoted Shutu, not an uncommon reality for nice men. I loved Shorey in this role and I’m so glad he did it despite him and Sen facing marital troubles during the filming. He nailed the 70’s Ango-Indian swag!
Nandu is a subtler bully, who takes charge and enjoys telling people what to do. When Bonnie complains about Vikram’s aggression against Shutu, he defends him and says, “Shutu is 23. He needs to man up.”
Massey, Koechlin and Shorey hold the film’s reins boldly and give it the importance it deserves. For me, the dark humor of the opening scene did not mesh with the rest of the movie. Neither did the ending where the writing decided to incorporate an element of cliched Bollywood drama. Although the director’s intention with the flashback style of story-telling is to build a suspense with multiple possibilities of explosions possible between the characters to evoke curiosity, anyone watching close enough will figure it out half-way.
My favorite scene is Shutu cycling by himself through a sunlit path between trees as he goes to buy his ticket back home. ‘A Death in the Gunj’ asks the question- How does the world treat a sensitive, straight man; someone who chooses thought and wonder over power and action every time, who does not pretend to be stronger than he really is as he wears his dead father’s sweaters, who will not defend himself against cruel words from the people he loves.
The answer is 107 minutes of – Not kindly.