A Death in the Gunj is based on a short story by
Mukul Sharma, which in turn was inspired by true events that transpired in the
1980s. But when it came to the birth of her avatar as a feature film director,
actress Konkona Sensharma decided to set the film in December 1979, the month
in which she was born. “I think the events actually occurred in 1981 or ’82 but
I think ’79 is a more romantic year,” she said.
The film premiered at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival, a prestigious platform for the first-time filmmaker. In town for TIFF, Sensharma acknowledged the encouragement from Cameron Bailey, the film festival’s Artistic Director. “I’m so grateful to my producers, I’m grateful to TIFF and to Cameron Bailey who’s been so supportive and encouraging. And it’s such a nice platform for people who are film lovers and who want to watch something that’s not within the mainstream and not following a specific formula…it’s exciting and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Sensharma has made a cracking debut as a director, delivering an absorbing period drama. The narrative unfolds in a flashback, of an upper class Bengali family and some of their friends gathered in the town of McCluskieganj, an Anglo-Indian stronghold in what was then Bihar, during the December holiday season. It centers around a shy young man Shutu, played superbly by Vikrant Massey in his debut as a lead actor. The sensitive and fragile Shutu steadily unravels during the vacation, leading to its shattering climax.
Among the many causes for Shutu’s torment is Vikram, the swashbuckling childhood friend of his cousin Nandu, memorably brought to life – right from his flamboyant sideburns down to the tips of his flared bell bottoms – by Sensharma’s real-life estranged husband Ranvir Shorey. The director was always clear she wanted Shorey for the role.
I actually wrote it with him (Ranvir Shorey) in mind. Also he’s a fabulous actor, one of the best actors we have.Konkona Sensharma
Others in the holiday party include Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), another of his childhood friends Brian (Jim Sarbh), and the coolly seductive Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). “Most of them have worked together before, have done plays together…I think Jim, Ranvir, Kalki and Tilottama are all doing this play at the same time, so they all knew each other, and got along really well,” Sensharma said. They are ably supported by veteran actors Tanuja and Om Puri, among others.
Sensharma maintains the pace through the shifting, complex interactions among the characters. The locations bring on a bout of nostalgia, and the dialogues flow smoothly in the upper-class English common to that segment of society, interspersed with bits of Bangla, and Hindi for issuing orders to the servants. Vikram teases, taunts and pranks Shutu mercilessly, even as the others alternate between obliviousness to his plight and the casual cruelty born of their easy self-confidence. The background score is a delight, adding to the varying moods of light fun, crushing despair and the occasional eerie spells. The attention to detail is admirable: If you wonder why one of the taillights of the old Ambassador car at the start of the film is not working, you will find out midway.
The debutant director said she never considered adapting the story to a contemporary timeline as many of its elements would have had to be completely reworked. Sensharma explained, “If it were to be set today events would not have occurred as they did in terms of writing letters or making a phone call from the post office, so all of that – I would have changed, everything would have changed.”
Sensharma, who is the daughter of veteran filmmaker and actress Aparna Sen, and writer Mukul Sharma, said her parents did pitch in with advice about that period, but she learnt to take it with a pinch of salt. “It’s not information that is available very easily, so we were relying on everybody’s memories and experiences. We quickly discovered it’s not very reliable because people have different takeaways and different kinds of experiences. Sometimes my dad would be like, this used to happen and my mum would be like, no I don’t remember that happening. So it was just collecting all of that and collating.”
The film was shot on location in McCluskieganj in what is now Jharkhand state, with what Sensharma termed enthusiastic support and help from the old town’s residents. It is likely to be released commercially early next year.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently based in Toronto.)