Movie Review: A Death In The Gunj, Murder She Said

Actor Konkona Sensharma makes an auspicious debut as a writer-director with a decidedly different murder mystery, enhanced by striking performances by Vikrant Massey and Kalki Koechlin.
three and half stars

Okay this is my cup of tea, green tea: bracing, steamy and flavourful. A whodunwhat-why-when, here’s a murder mystery cloaked in the robe of a family at emotional loggerheads. Right off, the intrigue is on.

The venue: a cozy colonial house in the backwoods of McCluskiegunj, Bihar. Time: circa, 1979. Actor Konkona Sensharma elects to make her bow as a writer-director with A Death in the Gunj, and keeps herself behind the camera. Drawn from real-life events as written by her father, Mukul Sharma, at the outset the ensemble does seem unwieldy.

Too many characters in the extended family under focus, too many friends serving as baggage, too many obvious influences --  ranging from the Scorsesian-cum-Tartinoesque touch of a body being discovered in a car boot to the Chekhovian milieu created so memorably by Satyajit Ray for Aranyer Din Rhatri. The screenplay, now and then, is littered with avoidable red herrings. And the tribal folk dancing by the fireside, is quite gratuitous.

still from a death in the gunj
Still From A Death In The Gunj

Never you mind though. Because despite the several blemishes, Sen Sharma asserts her credentials as an intriguing and engaging storyteller. The almost lost-world ambinece of McCluskiegunj (a tongue-twister of a name if there ever was one) is created in painterly pastel colours by cinematographer Sirsha Roy. Moreover, the background music score by Sagar Desai is mood-enhancing rather than a drum-blast on your ears.

Right so that corpse is discovered at the very beginning of this 110-minuter, then the film retreats seven days in time, and the dramaturgy concludes with a closed-parenthesis. The flashback device works marvellously, sustaining the suspense throughout, in the cedar-tinted lighting of the interiors of the house and the sun-caressed, leafy outdoors.

Since the story’s the key here, suffice it to introduce you to the dramatis personae, as it were, and then meet them at the old-worldly house which belongs to the Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja). The patriach, by the way, wallows in the distant past, when rifles used for shikar hunts were the status symbols of the upper crust.

Their son Nandu,his wife and their knee-high daughter (Gulshan Devaiah-Tillotama Shome-Anuja Sharma) have driven over from Calcutta to bring in the New Year. Accompanying them is Nandu’s nephew, Shutu  (Vikrant Massey), a University student who’s shy, complicated and still dealing with a bout of grief.

Shutu, in fact, is the pivot, bullied, hassled and heartbreakingly vulnerable. His tormentors, from outside the family fold, are spearheaded by a full-of-himself swaggerddacio (Ranveer Shorey) and the sexy-vexy Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), smoking cigarettes with the cool of a Holly Golightly. In fact, Koechlin and Massey (last seen to disadvantage in the thankless role of an Agony Dost in Half Girfriend) are consistently nuanced and contribute the most accomplished performances of the lot, without subverting the rest of the ensemble.

a still from death in the gunj
Tanuja In A Death In The Gunj

Skeletons leapfrog out of the closet as they do in every dysfunctional family, sexual frisson is in the air. And the tempo which follows an elegiac pace, makes A Death in the Gunj, a rare chamber piece from India’s off-mainstream cinema, which has alas been ebbing of late. The dialogue, largely in English with smatterings of Bengali and Hindi, are as they should be: believable.

Konkona Sen Sharma’s subtext can be detected through the story, which underscores the hangover of the colonial era as well as the self-willed isolation of those in their advancing years who have cut themselves far away from the madding crowd. Yet, it’s not the romanticised, wonderful life led out there in a pastoral hamlet.

As it happens, A Death in the Gunj, has done its round of the  international film festivals. Sorrily, it cannot be recommended unconditionally for those who have a near-narcotic yen for formula entertaimnent.

Those who relish a different cuppa of tea, should catch it at the ‘plexes while it’s on the tray piping hot. Way to serve, Ms Sensharma.



Thumbnail Image Source: youtube/movietalkies

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