Violence and death stalks the fun and games of Bonnie, Nandu and their friends in the sleepy hill town of McCluskieganj in Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj that released last Friday to raving reviews and nearly empty auditoriums. The reception was not unexpected. In making a quaint period film where the characters speak mostly in English — with a smattering of Bengali and Hindi — Ms Sen Sharma has made a choice similar to the one made by her mother Aparna Sen in her debut 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). Some of the themes are also similar: Loneliness, a sense of abandonment, sexual desire. But it also has a sense of impending doom that’s quite unique to it.
If there is an overarching influence on the film, it is of Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). Adapted from Sunil Gangopadhyay’s eponymous novel, Ray’s film had four young Bengali men taking a holiday to Palamau in Bihar (now Jharkhand). In an iconic scene, one of them, Shekhar (played Rabi Ghosh) burns a copy of The Statesman and declares that all their connections with civilisation are severed. Free from urban mores, they go about drinking mahua and one of them seduces a Santhal girl with disastrous consequences.
In A Death..., too, Bonnie and Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) come to spend the year-end holidays with Mr and Mrs Bakshi (Om Puri and Tanuja), driving their blue Ambassador. Along with them are their daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), and Nandu’s cousin Shyamal Chatterji or Shutu (Vikrant Massey). At McCluskieganj, they are joined by their friends Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh). As old friends meet, it’s time for feasting and drinking, for fun and games. The only person who remains in the margins, not included in the games, is Shutu.
Early on, we learn that he has recently lost his father. This mild-mannered young man, described by Mimi at point to be almost as beautiful as a girl, roams around wearing the dead father’s sweater and hanging out more with his niece, Tani, than the adults. They explore the hills and the forests, hang a swing from the tree and burn insects with a magnifying glass and bury them solemnly. Shutu keeps dead butterflies in his diary, sketches frogs that haunt the bathrooms in the house and reads Gulliver’s Travels. As we learn gradually, not everything is okay with him and he is rather vulnerable, as expressed by his fear of death and ghosts. When the others are merrily singing “Tut gaache bhoot naache...”, he hides under the bedclothes, haunted by nightmares. Unlike Bonnie who pulls the curtains of Tani’s bedroom window so that she does not feel scared, there is no one to take care of Shutu.
As we know, children are forced to live in a world of adults, and follow rules not of their making. Shutu, like the protagonist of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Chhuti, is stuck in a grey zone between childhood and adulthood. He is expected to take on adult duties – lock the car, drive the car, take care of Tani – but he is excluded from the fun and games of adults. They, in fact, do play a lot of games: kabbadi, planchette. If they do include him, they do so reluctantly. The only game in which he can beat his overbearing elder cousin, Nandu, is chess — and even there he is not allowed the taste of victory because of frequent interruptions. When a game of kabaddi ends in a rather violent showdown, in a rare moment of sympathy, Bonnie reflects on how Vikram always behaves like a child and gets away with it while Shutu does not. Nandu is less sympathetic: At 23, you are no longer a child, he claims. “That’s how old we were when we got married,” he reminds her.
The lack of pity is the cause of all evil, claims Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Bonnie, Nandu and Co., too self-satisfied in their secured worlds like so many of us, shows too little empathy for the less fortunate. We learn of how they have had a series of pets, who have all died because they were not taken care of properly. A tortoise, Haridas, was forgotten at a picnic. It’s easy to forget Shutu, too; to send him away when he errs only a little, when his utility is exhausted. When Tani gets lost, a search party is mounted. No one even notices that Shutu has not returned from the forest, and only a lone chowkidaar is sent out to search for him in the cold. When he returns to the warm house, he looks at everyone inside through the glass in a French window. (The scene reminds us of the climax of 36 Chowringhee Lane.) A series of rejections follow, pushing Shutu to the edge.
The film begins with Nandu and Brian stuffing a body into the trunk of an Ambassador and wondering what they should do to make it fit. (We don’t get to know whose body it is till the end.) Then they set off on an eight-hour drive to Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is dusk, the hour of ghosts. As the end credits of the film start rolling, the audience is offered a view of the road behind the car, in the gathering darkness. At this point, one wonders if one has been treated to a ghost story — or more accurately, a story elaborating how one becomes a ghost, consigned to the ignominy of forgetfulness.