A Death in the Gunj

From celebrated actress Konkona Sensharma, making her directorial debut, comes an Indian drama that’s a poignant and surprisingly powerful condemnation of the disturbing and destructive effects of emotional abuse that siblings and parents can unwittingly inflict on their own family members. 

Set in 1979, an extended family of brothers and their spouses gather to spend New Year’s with their aunt and uncle at their ancestral home among the decaying remains of the former Anglo-Indian settlement of McCluskiegunj in the jungle forest of Jharkhand north east India.

The film is based on Sensharma’s own childhood experiences and loosely based on her father’s short story ‘Death in McCluskie Gunj’, which was more of a supernatural thriller and fictionalized retelling of an actual incident involving a séance that took place at his parents vacation home.

As is often the case with large extended families, there’s plenty of aggressive peer pressure and boisterous playful teasing among the older siblings who all want to prove their male dominance. But one young nephew, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a university student, seems to be less so inclined. He’s a withdrawn introvert and more of a sensitive artistic soul who is always the butt of everyone’s jokes and pranks. 

It’s clear he doesn’t fit in with the family, there’s a childlike innocence about him that no one seems to appreciate except Tani, the eight year old daughter of his uncle Nandu. Treated with disdain as a poor relative, he’s an outsider looking in and feels left out but wants desperately to be accepted as an equal member of the family. 

Relentlessly harassed by his cruel uncles, sent on trivial errands by his aunt and used as a babysitter, Shutu’s self-worth is eventually whittled away to nothing, setting the stage for the inevitable tragic consequences.

The abandoned ruins of bungalows in the lush Gunj forest make for a moody and ominous setting that seem inviting and beautiful enough on the outside, but where darker unsuspecting dangers may lurk.

Circumstances conspire that put Shutu in a more adult sexual situation, and he naively falls for a girl who’s toying with his feelings. When he realizes that he’s been taken advantage of yet again, the humiliation and realization that he will never be what others expect of him, lead to a tragic outcome.

This is not a Bollywood musical melodrama. A Death in the Gunj is very much in keeping with the tenets of a socially conscious realism style of cinema in the tradition of legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s social realist dramas.

A Death in the Gunj re-creates perfectly the attitudes, fashion and visual design of late 70s India. Sensharma is also able to effectively create the social and class dynamics of a large upper-middle class Indian family with an excellent ensemble cast that will resonate with South Asian as well as international audiences. 

A Death in the Gunj played in Toronto at TIFF16 this September and will open the Mumbai Film Festival October 21, 2016.


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