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Review: A Death in the Gunj: Minor achievement, disappointment

Kalki Koechlin and Vikrant Massey in A Death in the GunjDespite its many problems, A Death in the Gunj is an important work, says Sreehari Nair.

It is a fact well established that a man at his angriest reveals expressions of his mother.

Betray a man's trust, slide ahead of him at the supermarket checkout counter, or question his competency during a meeting, and you will see in his face an anger that burns with a certain maternal quality.

Shutu, the protagonist of A Death in the Gunj, has a mother we never see. But in Shutu's silent retaliations, muted aggression, and angry wheezes, we can trace his mother's face.

Of course, this isn't a factoid completely overlooked by those around Shutu.

There's a family friend, a so-hussy-she's-hopping-now Mimi (played by Kalki Koechlin), who, fresh from a hurt, walks over to Shutu and says to his face: 'Oh my God, you are so pretty. Like a girl!'

Such Freudian linkages that it teases us with, inside the precinct of a chamber drama, provide some of the minor pleasures of watching Konkona Sen Sharma's debut picture.

But then, hidden inside these self-serving linkages, is a bigger cultural tragedy. For you soon realise that Shutu is to his relatives a mere specimen for enforcing their poetic thoughts; an idea to be improved; a concept to be developed.

The scariest aspect of his relatives' exploitation of the inward growing Shutu (who they see as non-hip and several IQ points slower) is that it is exploitation carried out with the best of intentions.

In this sense, the movie isn't a soup-for-the-soul story as many would see it ('Oh poor Shutu, look how he taught us the importance of being kind,' they say this and then swear at the next taxi driver who snubs them on the street), but a potent study of colonial hangovers.

Even as we celebrate freedom from the British every year, a reality we never acknowledge is that the British idea of imperialism is yet to be sweated off us.

At its core, this idea was linked to the Britishers' belief that they were good medicine for us because they were clearly better than us.

A Death in the Gunj's characters mimic this very feeling of elitism and cultural superiority.

The movie is set in the 1970s, in the greens and browns of McCluskieganj, at a time when winter is at its sternest and the characters are pausing conversations to blow heat into their knotted fists.

And when the characters resume talking, they say their lines like participants at a book reading session.

Sen Sharma doesn't work out the tensions between the relatives as finely as she maps out their relationships with Shutu.

The inflections in the English dialogues are anachronistic in their texture and the characters don't authentically seem like Indians of an earlier era.

Not sure if this is a compliment or a grouse; but major portions of A Death in the Gunj feel like they were written by a really smart 15 year old.

However, Sen Sharma does have a purity of intent that holds the picture together, even when it turns verbally inchoate.

She lets sounds, images, and tastes from her own childhood work their way into the episodic narrative and the movie takes on shades of a fable being slowly transformed into a study of manners.

At one point, when Tillotama Shome's daughter goes missing, and as the townies begin a frantic search operation, a tribal song with the line 'I have lost my toe ring in the vast fields' plays in the background.

Sen Sharma also doesn't shy away from showing off her cinematic influences; at times, she tries to be all of her heroes, all at once.

There are overlapping conversations ala Altman, car trunk shots that are Tarantinoesque, and the core plot has echoes of Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri.

As a pure alternative to following its exact story, the movie can actually be enjoyed as a pastiche.

Between all this cinematic stunt pilotry, Sen also stages a sex scene imbued with tremendous erotic glitter.

The scene works like a balletic interpretation of sex, where the camera pans out as the actual ritual begins.

Sen photographs the scene with such swiftness-of-hand and spreads the coital sensations across the various elements in the frame with such screwball comedy energy that you respond to it before even taking it in completely. It's a romp!

The big howler in the picture though is Sen Sharma's direction of her actors. Her finest acting moments can evoke spasms even in the comatose -- she's such a fluid performer that none of the effects in her acts seem worked out; they literally flow out of her.

As a director, however, she hands out rigid instructions to her actors.

Tanuja reads inland letters and Om Puri polishes his Chekhov's Gun.

Ranveer Shorey, playing the hypertrophied male figure Vikram, hams it up, leaving his hypertrophy at the service of such scrubby details as calling his bike his 'chariot.'

Gulshan Devaiah as Nandu has one scary scene where he dispenses driving lessons and that is perhaps the scene he was cast for (it taps into Devaiah's ready-to-explode shoulders and his ghoulish eyes).

Tillotama Shome and Kalki Koechlin do their best work when they're together. There's a scene where Kalki asks for confirmation about a lady's name and Shome wonders, in a mumbling tone, if it is 'Protima' or 'Purnima'; more of such scenes of behaviour would have given these characters a roundedness they lack.

Vikrant Massey as the vulnerable, in-bent Shutu is conceived from sentences half-written. Coming off a nothing role in Dil Dhadakne Do (the kind of role that can take the edge off very fine actors) Massey performs the withdrawn act here with sincerity.

And while his Shutu may not have the many shades of his euphoric turn in Lootera, his face stays with you.

Despite its many problems, A Death in the Gunj is an important work, because you know that Konkana Sen Sharma is getting at something here; something tragic outside the bounds of mere melancholy.

She's constantly reaching out to the sensations she has felt, passing truths she has recorded, and cinematic pleasures she has experienced.

And perhaps, there's a weird bliss in knowing that while the movie has the outline of a drama, it also has the thrust of a mystery.

The whole thing begins with a suggestion on how to arrange a corpse inside a car trunk, and ends with the car powering ahead, leaving behind silent whispers of the dead floating through pine trees.

Rediff Rating: