There are indeed no two opinions about Konkana Sen’s talent as an actress par excellence. And now with her debut film A DEATH IN THE GUNJ she proves without doubt that she is a brilliant director as well! Based on a short story written by her own father Mukul Sharma and a superb screenplay written by Konkana herself, she weaves an intricate tapestry of relationships and cleverly infuses it with an aura of mystery and tension.
As the name suggests, there is a death in the film and a feeling of uneasiness grips you from the very first scene when two of the characters are shown screwing up their noses to ward off the smell coming from a dead body as they try to fit it in a foetal position in the luggage compartment of their car. The effect of the scene is even more chilling as all this is conveyed without actually showing the body. And as they set off in the car, the film goes backwards to unravel the events which took place one week earlier.
Set in the small town of McCluskiegunj in Bihar, the director transports us back in time to 1979 when one wintery morning a family sets off on a seemingly normal holiday. The members include Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), their daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), Nandu’s cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). Once they reach Nandu’s parents’ house, they are joined by Nandu’s friends Vikram (Ranveer Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarabh) and for a little while by Vikram’s newly wed wife as well.
The icing on the cake was seeing Om Puri and Tanuja who play Nandu’s parents. It felt sad to note that we would never be able to see this wonderful actor with a resonating voice perform again. (This and the upcoming film Tubelight are incidentally two of his last screen appearances). It was a delight to see Tanuja in a nice role. After all in her hey-days she had been one of Hindi cinema’s most spontaneous actresses.
Each character is etched out so beautifully and brought to life so vividly that we come to identify perfectly with each of their emotions and they effortlessly become part of our psyche for the entire screen-time of less than 2 hours. The dialogues are in English with a smattering of Bengali thrown in making the scenes and setting very natural. The old-world charm of the seventies has been captured very well. That was the time when youngsters preoccupied themselves with nature and greenery, when handwritten letters held importance, when we had to go to a post-office or a special booth to book an outstation call and wait for our turn to come. Somewhere the ‘Bengali’ touch of the setting also reminds us of Tagore and the characters in his short stories…
Hang on! Before you start categorizing the film as just another murder mystery, let me assure you, it is much more than that. As the past events unfold, we are kept guessing as to who must have been the victim whose body was being taken in the first scene? What could have happened on this seemingly uneventful family holiday that ended up in a death? Was it a normal death? Was it a murder? In the darkness of the cinema hall, the director certainly keeps us on tenterhooks…
As the days unfold one by one, each day brings forth new events and unsettling emotions which add up to build the intrigue. The languid and unhurried pace of the drama also helps to build the characters. The apt background score by Sagar Desai and excellent camerawork by Sirsha Ray add their own unique dimension especially the night-time scenes and these two really need to be lauded for their imaginative work!
As we approach the sixth and the seventh day, the apprehension and speculation are palpable as the events start moving in an unexpected way leading to the final crescendo and all along the eerie suspense is kept intact.
Towards the end, as Konkana Sen shows her true mastery by connecting all the dots beautifully leaving no loose ends, we cannot help but doff our hat to this outstanding debutante and hope there will be more unusual cinematic gems from this super lady!
The performance of the entire cast is brilliant and they help the director in nailing what she set out to accomplish. In fact, the casting is so apt that we cannot imagine any other actor/actress essaying the respective roles. All are very good actors and in the absence of any set image, they blend effectively with the story-line.
Such movies may not get the kind of publicity they deserve and are sometimes lost due to lack of promotional gimmicks. Also as the film is in English, the reach of the film gets narrowed down which is indeed a pity. These kind of films are rare and not to be missed by any fan of cinema.
For those interested, here is the trailer of the film: