'A Death in the Gunj': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A Death in the Gunj - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
An imperfect but engrossing debut feature.

An Indian family gathering ends in tragedy in this Toronto world premiere from actor-turned-director Konkona Sensharma.

Making her writer-director debut with A Death in the Gunj, Indian actress Konkona Sensharma is carrying on the family tradition. Her mother is Aparna Sen, herself an actor and director with roots in the "parallel cinema" movement of more complex, independent, auteur-driven alternatives to the Bollywood mainstream. The most internationally renowned figurehead of India's New Wave school was the late Satyajit Ray, of course, and Sensharma seems to be gesturing towards Ray's ruminative style in her intimate dissection of a dysfunctional family gathering.

Inspired by real events from Sensharma's own family history, A Death in the Gunj takes place in 1979. This retro setting allows for some fun with vintage clothes and facial hair, though the underlying gender politics, fleeting sex scenes and occasionally crude language bring a more modern sensibility. This is an absorbing debut with an appealing ensemble cast, including international stars like Om Puri. The dialog is partly in English, which should boost the film's crossover prospects, though it lacks the power and originality to make a big splash beyond its key demographic of Indians both home and abroad. Following its world premiere in Toronto this week, it will open Mumbai Film Festival next month.

The story opens with an unexplained body in the boot of a car, but any similarities with GoodFellas end there. Sensharma then rewinds a week to fill in the context to this macabre plot hook. An extended family gathers to celebrate New Year at the remote rural homestead owned by an elderly couple, O.P. Bakshi (Om Puri) and his wife Anupama (Tanuja Mukherjee). The house nestles in misty wooded terrain close to McCluskiegunj, a resort town once planned as a utopian community for Anglo-Indian families, but which is now a fading relic of British colonialism.

The misfit of the gathering is Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a sensitive young man consumed by problems at home and at university. Withdrawn and easily spooked, Shutu is singled out for gentle mockery by the entire family, especially bullish alpha-male playboy Vikram (Ranvir Shorey). Meanwhile, the sexually liberated Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) targets the handsome Shutu for other reasons, treating him as an innocent boy-toy to be casually seduced in between her adulterous liaisons with Vikram.

Lightly spiced with family arguments and marital tensions, A Death in the Gunj features a missing child, an unexpected cameo by a CGI wolf, a frisson of sexual jealousy and a mounting undercurrent of despair that finally erupts into violence. Uncle Bakshi's fondness for shotguns is telegraphed early, foreshadowing the approaching tragedy, though Sensharma is shrewd enough to keep us guessing about who and why until the death occurs.

Considering Sensharma made her name in front of the camera, A Death in the Gunj is oddly uneven in the acting department. The characters feel schematic and the dialog stilted, while some of the performances have the stiffness of daytime soap opera. Shutu is implausibly naive and wholesome, Mimi little more than a male fantasy, and Vikram a caricature of blustering macho arrogance. Maybe cultural differences come into play here, and Indian audiences will accept these archetypes more readily, but they seem oddly out of place in such a nuanced and novelistic setting.

All the same, A Death in the Gunj is an assured debut feature that leaves a haunting air of melancholy in its wake. The lush rural setting, brooding atmosphere and slow-burn suspense are all strong ingredients, while Sagar Desai's sumptuous old-school score injects just the right amount of heart-tugging melodrama.

Production Companies: Studioz IDrream Entertainment Private Limited, Macguffin Pictures
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Tillotama Shome, Jim Sarbh, Tanuja Mukherjee, Om Puri, Arya Sharma
Director, screenwriter: Konkona Sensharma
Producers: Honey Trehan, Abhishek Chaubey, Raagii Bhatnagar, Ashish Bhatnagar, Vijay Kumar, R Swami
Executive Producers: Smriti Jain, Gaurav Mishra
Cinematographer: Sirsha Ray
Editors: Aarif Sheikh, Manas Mittal
Music: Sagar Desai
Sales company: C International Sales
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
No rating, 104 minutes