4 June 2017

This Dappled Light

My Mirror column:

Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut eschews high drama for a gentle chiaroscuro of abandon and watchfulness.

The blue Ambassador that transports a Calcutta family into the semi-rural wilderness of 1970s McCluskieganj places Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut in a longstanding tradition of Bengali holiday fictions. One of the earliest parts of India to be colonised and enter into capitalist time, Bengal’s employed white collar denizens treat the chhuti (vacation) with almost as much reverence as the chakri (office job).

So although the dialogue is mostly in English (a fact that fits Sen Sharma’s smoking-drinking-Auld-Lang-Syne-singing assemblage of Anglophone Calcuttans perfectly), A Death in the Gunj clearly draws on the particular historical relationship between the middle-class Bengali vacationer escaping the urban chaos of Calcutta and the unspoilt nearby hinterland of not-too-distant locations in Orissa and Bihar (now partly Jharkhand). Many of Satyajit Ray’s short stories – and several of Saradindu’s Byomkesh Bakshi ones – used journeys to these milieus to presage the unfurling of a mystery. Leaving the city for the jungle or some remote rural outpost, as is seen in so many of these stories, is a fictional trope that enables the emergence of suppressed selves.

Sen Sharma’s film, unlike in the above instances, makes her cinematic travellers a family group: complete with an eight-year-old child, a slightly slutty cousin and a poor relation who is a rather pretty boy. In a beautifully observed set of vignettes, we see how the dynamics of power, class, sex and age are at work within the family, often being set into motion by the arrival of non-familial male visitors – Ranvir Shorey’s belligerently charming Vikram, and Jim Sarbh’s mild-mannered Brian. 

Vikram, in particular, is the catalyst for many reactions. Kalki Koechlin’s Mimi amps up her sexiness in an ever-so-carelessly careful way around him, the older woman of the house (Tanuja) is somewhat flattered by his gift-giving, and even the married Bonnie (Tilottama Shome) can feel mildly slighted by his attention to Mimi. More crucially, though, Vikram embodies a certain masculine aggression: something to which Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) responds by wanting to match up to him, to prove he’s just as fearless – while the gentler Shutu’s reaction is to retreat into his shell.

Shutu – played to perfection by Vikrant Massey – is the emotional centre of the film. He’s the poor sensitive cousin who spends much of his time with his notebook, sketching frogs and making private lists of words he likes beginning with ‘e’, when he is not hanging out with the actual child in the group, Tani. He is 23 and has just lost a father and failed an exam, but his vulnerability seems to work like some kind of taunt to the older men, who couch their bullying of him as some kind of initiation ritual that will force him to “toughen up”.

I recently watched another film about a troubled young man at the cusp of adulthood – the Marathi film Kaasav (Turtle), directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, which won a National Award for Best Feature last year. Kaasav’s plot, such as it is, feels much more contrived: a young man in bermuda shorts and a backpack tries to slit his wrists, is rescued, escapes from the hospital and coincidentally washes up at the doorstep of an older woman (Irawati Harshe) who is just in the process of recovering from her own experience of suicidal depression.

A painfully repetitive pattern of brattish behaviour on the part of the young man and selfless acceptance on the part of the older woman ensues, made somewhat watchable by the presence of a beautifully calming Konkan coastline and a rather sweet child who offers the innocence quotient. The film is wonderfully well-intentioned and finally leads us out of the impasse by making the protagonist recognise something of his own strength.

Unlike the sanitised, asexual matrix of pure humanity within which Kaasav operates, A Death in the Gunj offers a fleshed out universe of characters, none of whom are evil – yet we are forced to grapple with their darker sides. Along with the companionable lightness and warmth that the family offers, it can also force its less forceful members into preconceived slots, too quick to judge, too preoccupied to pay attention, neglecting to give them the space they might need to be – or become – themselves. 

A woman who really wants to accompany a search party is left behind because she is perceived as too emotionally fraught to be taken – while a man who really does not want to go along is hijacked into the expedition. Sen Sharma’s film is full of moments like these, making us watch as people ignore each other’s needs, or worse, blithely use another person to fulfil their own. Watching it is an exercise in sensitive observation; its particular tragedies may unfold in the slow time of a long-ago vacation, but they could so easily be our own.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 June 2017.

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