<Review by: Rohinton Balsara>
Directed by Konkona Sen-Sharma. Starring Vikrant Massey, Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin, Tillotama Shome, Om Puri, Jim Sarbh, Ranvir Shorey, Promila Pradhan, Arya Sharma, Tanuja
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
One thing that can be said with absolute certainty about A Death in the Gunj is that it represents the Sen gene pool all to obviously in it’s representation. It is a daughter’s film and Konkona Sen-Sharma is clearly conversant with her mother’s filmography.
The film begins with Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) positioning a body in the trunk of a car. The eerily placid looks on their faces while handling the body set the expectation of a slow burn thriller.
The film then carries a reverse timeline to lead us to the death in the last scene. This backwards movement in the story has been previously seen in films such as Gaspar Noe’s shock porn ‘Irreversible’ to the brilliant breakdown of the family unit in Michael Haneke’s directorial debut, ‘The Seventh Continent’. Here this seems as a rather unnecessary and contrived device as the story could have been told just as effectively moving forward with a linear structure.
Although an assured debut, Sen-Sharma’s feature, which is based on true incidents, feels like a game of Chinese whispers where the final retelling is anything but the actual story. The central character Shutu is played by Vikrant Massey, who is portrayed as a sensitive, young individual and is paired against a jarring contradiction of other characters that are indecently in each other’s faces. The manipulation of the audience is obvious in certain scenes, which in the hands of a more capable director would be left behind in the editing room.
The cinematography is glorious in this rather laboured effort where the location scenes have a distinctly period feel about them.
The film continually questions what it is to be masculine in an obviously alpha society and fleshes out male stereotypes perfectly through feminine observation.
The range displayed by the characters in the film oscillates from a whisper to a scream while missing all the octaves in between. There is the fatherly figure portrayed by the hugely underrated Om Puri; the sensitive, depressive protagonist Shutu, his overbearing brother Nandu and his loud and obnoxiously aggressive friend Vikram (Ranvir Shorey). Such an obvious effort in displaying all the shades of masculinity is nothing short of a constant knock for the audience as to where they would stand in this simplistic dynamic.
The women in the film play supporting characters and are equally complicit in the emasculation and breakdown of the mental health of the protagonist. Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) is the promiscuous, rum guzzling vamp sister of Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) who is married to Nandu.
The supporting roles are actually what lend credibility to the film, especially Nandu’s friend Brian (Jim Sarbh) and Tani (Arya Sharma) who plays Bonnie’s daughter in the film.
What was hardest to watch was a good set of actors mouthing lines where the pacing was so off at times that they must have been clairvoyant to know what their colleagues were about to say by responding all too soon.
Further, what swung the characters to caricature were the period costumes and hairstyles. To take the most obvious reference points for defining a generation and running with them does not really translate to capturing the essence of that period.
The dialogues and the language used in the film are a typical modern rehash of a person thinking of what someone in the 70’s might say with a sensitivity that is distinctly of the current moment.
The chauvinism and misogyny represented in the film is put upon and the female characters that seem to hold their own through most of the film, whimper and cower like little girls in other scenes.
The standout performance was by Massey who captured every single note in exploring the inner turmoil of his character.
The music in the film is distinctly Indian art house, which has a very us v/s them kind of sensibility while displaying the social classes portrayed in the film.
“The past is a different country. They do things differently there”, wrote the Brit novelist L.P. Hartley. Sen-Sharma’s film set in 70’s India seems too current and barely foreign to be completely believable.
Overall, it is a well-intentioned film with moments of beauty through a female director’s lenses trying to capture the male soul.