‘A Death in the Gunj’ could be the most straightforward title you’d give to an Indian murder mystery. So precise, so economical, even news headlines would be put to shame. We’re nudged further into thinking that the film is a murder mystery with the opening scene, which has two men driving to Calcutta with a corpse on board. But here’s the twist: the question isn’t just the ‘Who is the murderer?’. The bigger questions are ‘Who was murdered?’ and ‘Was it actually a murder?’.
You could say that Konkona Sen Sharma further subverts the murder mystery by avoiding voice-overs and multiple flashbacks, but no, that’s not what she’s going for in her directorial debut. (The tale is just one long flashback from the opening scene, as it moves to one week before the death)
Instead, she chooses to give an unhurried account of a large Bengali family (the Bakshis) spending their Christmas vacations in 1979 McCluskieganj, during what would be the deceased person’s last week. (Still interesting as a murder mystery, because there’s no ‘investigating’; we’re the ones left to do that).
So positively sedate, that even with the days shown to be counted, we don’t feel the pressure of a clock ticking away. We’re on vacation ourselves here: not so much the ‘exciting’ type, but not yet boring.
And with this very relaxed pace, she lets the themes unravel themselves rather than introducing them herself. Such hefty themes like the eponymous phenomenon (death finds its place in myriad ways throughout the course of the narrative, each mention being a little more ominous than the one before) and gender stereotypes.
But ‘Death…’ is primarily about Shutu (Vikrant Massey)’s inner journey, and for the most part, you could either see it as a coming-of-age story sans the sanguinity, or as an understated tale of innocence lost (at a very internal level, of course). It is Shutu’s identity crisis, for lack of a better phrase, that lends to the film its slight ambiguity of genre.
On the one hand, he likes to be his own person and do his own thing. We see him draw frogs, keep moth specimens, make vocabulary lists, read ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ … but at the same time, he does aspire to be what his cousins Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) are: they fit what is the more accepted image for men, to the T. He wants to be able to do what they can: have everything and everyone at their beck and call.
The rest of the family members don’t know what to do with Shutu either. They play pranks on him, he’s made to run errands for them, Nandu’s wife Bonnie (Tillottama Shome) expects him to take care of their daughter Tani … but at the same time, it is Bonnie who defends Shutu (not in his presence) when Nandu wants him to toughen up (and be a ‘man’). This example perhaps stands for their behaviour towards Shutu: maybe they aren’t always mean to him and are genuinely trying to understand him; maybe they tried and tried and just let go after a point…
It is only with Tani that he seems to have anything resembling a relationship. Well she isn’t judging him (the other girl of the batch, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) tells him ‘he could have been a girl’) at least. Even here, there comes a stage when he can’t bring himself up to talk to her, and has to tell a lie.
A slightly mannered way of dialogue delivery apart, the cast (completed by Om Puri and Tanuja) do well to sustain the illusion of an actual family. Sen Sharma goes about with a graceful yet steady hand and an unjudging eye, giving us the offhand bit of spectacle too (e.g. the shot that sets up the third act). She isn’t spelling out Shutu’s feelings; she rather keeps it open for us to discern.
The above-mentioned subversion of the mystery apart, Konkona also manages flesh out the kind of characters we see only as stock figures in the average family drama: the resentful youngster, the shy and sensitive type, the extrovert etc. We don’t see a ‘There’s nothing like family’ dictum at the end too. This may as well be her biggest triumph.