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Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Death in the Gunj

The world premiere of Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut at the
41st Toronto International Film Festival

Konkona Sen Sharma has really large shoes to fill in as a director. Aparna Sen, Konkana’s mother, is an acknowledged auteur who has created at least two masterpieces – 36 Chowringhee Lane and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer – besides directing and acting many remarkable and memorable films. 

The consummate ease with which Konkana narrates the story of A Death in the Gunj (@aditg123) on celluloid it’d appear that in the years to follow, she’ll match her illustrious mother’s achievements as a film director.

A Death in the Gunj is Konkana's debut directorial venture, and what is immediately evident is the languorous pace at which she lets the story unfold. Its deliberate slowness helps each character acquire distinctiveness. The film has an ensemble cast that includes newcomers and veterans. Konkana has also written the story (and it based on a true story her father Mukul Sharma told her).

The story is set in 1979, and is of a family getting together in McCluskeigunj (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand), a holiday resort that was built by and for the Anglo-Indian community that soon dwindled in numbers to the point of extinction.  Even in 1979, the town has gone to seed, and nobody with any future lives there.

The Sharmas – Ashok (Om Puri) and Anupama (Tanuja) – live in their crumbling mansion with a retinue of orderlies. Lunches are extended and comprise Mulligatawny Soup, and specially baked bread by the few Anglo families and dinners are over endless glasses of liquor; mornings begin with tea in the front verandah, and the afternoon tiffin is on the porch. A blue Ambassador, very much a Calcutta vehicle till recently, ferries the family to McCluskeigunj from Calcutta, and within the resort’s many splendid locales.

The family is getting together to celebrate the New Year, with the young couple Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), and Bonnie (Tillotama Shome, ) and their young daughter coming over from Calcutta for the year-end holidays. Nandu’s friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), and Jim Sarbh, are frequent visitors, having known the family since their young days.

Accompanying Nandu and Bonnie are Mitali (Kalki Koechlin), Vikram’s former girlfriend, and Shyamal Chatterjee or Shutu (Vikram Massey), the nerdy, reticent, goofy guy everyone can’t stop teasing. The story is about the unobtrusive, seemingly mild but ceaseless bullying of Shutu by the group, and especially by Nandu and Vikram, and the terrible effect this has on Shutu.

Everyone knows everyone else and is both comfortable as well as uneasy as a group. Shutu prefers to spend his time with Nandu and Bonnie’s young daughter and is barely able to conceal his contempt for Vikram, who, although now married to a local woman, and whose family treats him like some sort of royalty, seeks to continue his onetime relation with Mitali.

Secrets spring out in the open with a monotonous regularity. For the group, these secrets aren’t really secrets because everyone is aware of them and ignores them. But with a monotonous frequency, these character flaws are exposed causing constant consternations and confrontations.

The repressed anger, and the repressed lust and the not-so-repressed ennui rise to surface repeatedly, but everyone quickly tries to calm the ripples, so that life and the holidays can go on uninterrupted. But it all ends in a desperate act that leaves a deep impression on the audience, it’s a dénouement that is expected all along, but is immensely unsettling when it does come because it is sudden, stark and brutish.  

The gentle pace is aided suitably by Sagar Desai’s background score and the close-crop framing by Sirsha Ray’s cinematography. Among the cast, Om Puri as Ashok Sharma is flawless, Tanuja as Anupama Sharma is brilliant, Gulshan Devaiah as Nandu is competent, Tillotama Shome as Bonnie is understated, Ranvir Shorey as Vikram is over-the-top, but his role requires him to be so, Kalki Koechlin as Mitali is smouldering, but the film really belongs to Vikrant Massey, who as Shutu is perennially vulnerable, willing to be used and abused, even sexually; he’s outstanding.

Cameroon Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival introduced the film and conducted post-screening Q&A. 

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