A Death In The Gunj review: Konkona makes a promising debut

Konkona Sen Sharma’s intriguing film of a family vacation gone wrong is a well-woven tale marking a fine directorial debut.

Sonal Pandya

Film: A Death In The Gunj
Rating: 3.5/5

After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, debutant director Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj had its Indian premiere at the 18th Mumbai Film Festival. This is the first feature film to be directed by the actress after her short film Naamkoron debuted at the Kala Ghoda Film Festival in 2006.

Sen Sharma has based her film on a short story by her father, the author Mukul Sharma, and written the screenplay herself. A Death In The Gunj is inspired by events that took place in the vacation home of McCluskieganj, and the director has turned her father’s story into a compelling narrative which unfolds on the screen in flashbacks.

The film opens with a shot of two men examining a body the viewer is left to guess its identity as the story moves back a week earlier when the Bakshi clan consisting of Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), and daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) descend to spend the holidays with Nandu's parents. Nandu’s cousin Shyamal aka Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) join them.

With New Year approaching, everyone is in merry spirits, except young Shutu, who hasn’t got over his father’s death. He can often be seen wearing his dad’s old sweater. The rest of the family, including Nandu’s boisterous friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh), don’t treat Shutu well. He is made to babysit Tani and usually treated as a helper, often running errands and cleaning up after everyone.

It is abundantly clear that Shutu is a sensitive young man. In an early scene, everyone plays a prank on him with a seance calling all good and evil spirits who are around. These slights, along with his infatuation for Mimi, grow to a point when everything begins to unravel for Shutu and he starts to believe that everyone is turning on him.

Set in 1979, the period film does well to document the era when family vacations meant spending time with one another and having fewer distractions. The camaraderie between family and friends is like any other, but as the story demands, the early joys turn to drama as conflict creeps in, day by day.

A Death In The Gunj also showcases a separate upstairs-downstairs dynamic when the servants of the household are included in family activities as well as leading their own separate lives. I wished to see more of it.

Some of the relationships seem initially confusing, especially Mimi and her connection to the family, but Shutu remains the focal point of the film. The strength of the film lies in his feelings of marginalization and growing despair. Vikrant Massey is brilliant as the troubled young man; one hopes for many such opportunities for his career. Everyone in the ensemble cast plays their part well – from Tanuja to young Arya Sharma. A Death In The Gunj is also bolstered by the fantastic period details in its costumes by Rohit Chaturvedi and a fantastic musical score by Sagar Desai.

Konkona Sen Sharma has done a commendable job in shaping up the story, dropping early clues that foreshadow the disquieting ending. The film is dedicated to Vishal Bhardwaj, with whom she has collaborated on many projects. It’s always interesting when an actor turns director as it shows their voice. Sen Sharma’s mother, Aparna Sen, turned to direction herself after starting out as an actress. After this, I’m quite keen to find out more of what Sen Sharma will have to show us in her future directorial projects.

Director: Konkona Sen Sharma
Writer: Konkona Sen Sharma
Producers: Honey Trehan, Abhishek Chaubey, Raagii Bhatnagar, Ashish Bhatnagar, Vijay Kumar, R Swami
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Ranvir Shorey, Tillotama Shome, Jim Sarbh, Tanuja, Om Puri, Arya Sharma
Music: Sagar Desai
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 104 minutes