Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Death in the Gunj: a preview

Konkona Sen Sharma’s debut feature film is a sensitive portrayal of ‘difference’ in a heady family drama which mutates into a thriller

After touring the world for about a year, Konkana Sen Sharma’s debut feature, A Death in the Gunj is all set to release in Indian theatres on 2 June 2017. After having proved her mettle as a superlative actor of infinite potential, Sen Sharma perhaps could not have a better start as a visionary behind the camera, who brings to her first feature film an extremely profound and nuanced understanding of human relationships and psyche. The film’s scrupulous attention to details, its retro-texture befitting the period in which the story is set (1978-1979), the costumes, the body language of the actors – everything testifies to a deep engagement on part of the filmmaker with the cinematic text, faithfully supported by the cinematographic excellence of Shirsho Roy in every frame.

In a very long time, Indian Cinema has not been able to scare its audience meaningfully, no matter how hard several filmmakers tried by deploying ridiculous graphics of ghosts, gore and gruesomeness; the fear, in most of these cases, was so damningly concretised that the thrill of getting scared was lost in the mayhem of ludicrous supernatural happenings or in the mediocre use of cinematic (or VFX) devices. Sen Sharma does complete justice to the genre she chooses (a family drama that mutates into a tragic thriller), by creating the right kind of atmosphere and psychologically disconcerting situations, which when reflected upon, augment the scare manifold, long after the film is over. 

Set within the familiarity of the tropes of a family holiday film, A Death in the Gunj (which might suddenly remind an alert viewer of Renoir’s A Day in the Country) gradually moves into extremely uncomfortable zones of human relationships, passions and loneliness, unravelling the darker shades of human nature, which when once revealed instigate the greatest fears that are difficult to assuage. While watching the film, it is difficult not to recall Aparna Sen’s short film Picnic made for the Doordarshan in the 1980s, in which Konkona had a significant role. However, Picnic was not a thriller, but a very disquieting tale of human relationships with insinuations of adultery, envy and possessiveness. Perhaps, Sen Sharma has consciously or unconsciously drawn upon a creative legacy by adapting her father’s story (Mukul Sharma) and alluding to her mother’s vision as a filmmaker, while dedicating the film to Vishal Bharadwaj, one of the greatest cinematic talents in contemporary India.

The Death in the Gunj impresses by its layered exploration of its protagonist’s (Shuttu aka Shyamal Chatterjee, essayed by the inimitable Vikrant Massey) coming of age and his gradual awakening into a hostile world where he does not seem to belong. Shuttu’s love for nature, literature, quiet moments – his overall introversion – set him apart from the hyper-males of the family, who bully him, humiliate him, and drive him to a breaking point, when he crosses his limit of endurance. Suttu, in all his sensitivity and emotional vulnerability, ends up being the quintessential other in the family, which barely understands him, except perhaps Tani (Arya Sharma), his young niece. “You are so pretty that you could have been a girl”, Mimi’s (Kalki Koelchin) compliment to Suttu, establishes a sexual ambiguity which significantly espouses his marginality vis-à-vis the other male members of the family. This ambiguity is, however, mitigated to a certain extent as he gradually gets erotically drawn to a sexually adventurous Mimi, but, the discomfort remains. At the same time, Mimi’s sexually liberal nature, her nonchalance to moral codes and her gregariousness also opens up grey zones of female sexuality, which are very seldom explored in Indian cinema and that too, without passing moral judgement. Most importantly, the film brings back a decade, the late 1970s, in a way Bollywood has barely remembered it, and raises very pertinent questions about conventional codes of masculinity, which are rarely dismantled in mainstream cinema. 

Supported by a extraordinarily talented ensemble cast comprising veterans such as Tanuja and Om Puri and extremely promising present day actors such as Gulshan Devaiah and Tillottoma Shome, apart from Ranbir Shorey, Jim Sarbh, Kalki and the endearing Vikrant, A Death in the Gunj does not need stars to shine in cinema halls. Its strength is its script, its powerhouse of acting talents,  and the effortless eeriness it creates. And, Sagar Desai’s music is a definite plus. In a long time, the film has revived memories of the New Wave Indian cinema which are gradually fading out in the overwhelming glamour and glitz of formula-driven potboilers.

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