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Movie Review: A Death In the Gunj - Konkona Sen Sharma's brilliant directorial debut
Every family has its own Shutu – a timid, shy, sensitive sister, brother or cousin who is bullied, ignored, taken for granted and often mercilessly teased by the rest.

Konkona Sen Sharma’s brilliant directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj is the story of one such tragic soul. Based on true events which unfolded in the director’s own family years ago, the story nevertheless seems very relevant for the times. Children have become more vulnerable and alienated than ever thanks to technology and the relentless pressure to perform and excel and the Shutus in our society only seem to be proliferating alarmingly.

It is 1979. The story begins with a death and rewinds back to the events that led to it. There is an elegiac feel to the music which heightens the sombre mood of the film. The cinematography has a sepia tone adding to the sense of things remembered. Konkana’s touch is sure and unfaltering. Right from the first scene, the film draws you in and fills you with a sense of impending dread and loss.

The action spans a period of seven days and day one begins with a family arriving at the parental home in Mcluskiegunj (once in Bihar, now in Jharkand) from Calcutta, cousins in tow.  The place was once home to many Anglo Indians and the characters in the movie speak mostly English. The parents of the couple are played by Tanuja and Om Puri while Gulshan Devaiah and Tilottama Shome play the married couple, Nandu and Bonnie. Their cousins, Mimi and Shutu are played by Kalki Koechlin and Vikrant Massey. Ranvir Shorey and  Jim Sharbh essay the roles of Vikram and Brian, the ‘country cousins’ or friends who are part of their charmed circle. The ensemble cast works perfectly but it is Vikrant Massey who walks away with the honours as the troubled soul, Shutu, battling inner demons and the cruel taunts of his kin.

Kalki looks beautiful and her shameless tease is an effortless performance and so is Shorey’s adulterous and boorish bully. There is also Tani, (Arya Sharma) the little girl who is 23-year-old Shutu’s constant companion as her parents seem to have little time for her. Shutu is the quintessential outsider in the crowd, struggling to blend in and win acceptance from the more sophisticated and outgoing members of this motley group. But the others barely notice him, deigning to remember him only where there is something to be fetched or done. The callousness and cavalier treatment he receives from the group is foregrounded as early as the seance scene and later when Tani goes missing.

Shutu’s sense of alienation stems from many factors like his father’s death, the sudden uprooting from his rural hometown to urban Calcutta and his shy nature. He has left Calcutta in ignominy, having failed his exams and been thrown out of the hostel. His mother is unable to comprehend how a brilliant student like him could fail. He is a misfit who desperately seeks to belong somewhere but even his own family members shut him out in the cruel and thoughtless way families sometimes do. In a poignant scene, we see the maid, Manjari, feeding the puppy from her own plate, an action that is juxtaposed against the way Shutu is ignored by his family. The more he is ignored, the harder he tries to please. Only the child Tani sees him as a person in his own right. But when Mimi intrudes into this relationship, he loses Tani too. From the moment Tani goes missing, the movie seems to spiral inexorably towards tragedy.

In the end, Shutu does succeed in making the others take notice of him even though it takes an act of violence to do it. In the climactic scene, all eyes are finally on him, registering his presence. Finally, they can ignore him only at their own peril. As you leave the theatre with a pang in your heart and a catch in your throat, you will shed a tear for the shy, gentle and sensitive Shutus of this world who are the endangered members of our human race which valorises the brute and vilifies the meek.

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