This recent Indian film intimately explores isolation through the layered characters, who are a bunch of misfits struggling with the darkness within them.
by Aisiri Amin
There is chaos in all of us, some sail through while some wrestle with it all their lives. A Death in the Gunj’s Shutu was amongst the latter. The 21 year-old-boy was one of those invisible people in a noisy room whose presence was only felt when there was a glass to be filled or a door to be opened.
Set in 1978’s McCluskiegunj, a small town in the Indian state of Jharkhand, A Death in the Gunj revolves around a Bengali family’s seven-day vacation. There is the authoritative Nandu, his wife Bonnie who often acts as the voice of reason, his parents O.P. and Anupama, the unabashed family friend Mimi, the short-tempered Vikram, the level-headed Brian and the typical misfit Shutu who is constantly fighting a storm within himself.
The film opens with Nandu and Brian staring at the bonnet of a car, talking about a dead body. Debutante director Konkana Sen Sharma cleverly drops the seed of curiosity in the opening scene itself. As the story rewinds to reveal the happenings of the week that led to the death, the dark side of the family also unravels.
Nandu arrives at his family home in McCluskiegunj along with Bonnie, Tani, Shutu and Mimi. Brian and the recently married Vikram joins the party. As the laughter of the old friends echoes through the dense forests, the thought of impending death makes you over analyse every word that they utter.
Struggling to make peace with the recent loss of his father, Shutu finds solace in Taani, his cousin Nandu and Bonnie’s daughter. They bond over being the audience in the group, the ones restricted to the sidelines: Taani because of being a kid and Shutu because of being seen as a nothing.
One look at Shutu is enough to know he’s different from the group. He stands out in the way he unintentionally disappears. He is their punching bag. A weakling, they bully and bond over. He is often the target of Nandu’s pranks and Vikram’s temper, because he is, “sensitive”, a word that is used for him again and again in the film.
He develops a liking towards the seductive Mimi who is about a decade older than him. Mimi frequently hooks up with Vikram even after he is married. While it’s just physical attraction for Vikram, Mimi struggles with her feelings for him.
The complexities of the characters are revealed layer by layer, adding to the eerie like strangeness in the air. There is an overbearing sense of loneliness that all of them seem to carry in their heart. For instance, Mimi comes across as the free spirit that the world couldn’t tame but as the film progresses we see the struggle that a single, unmarried woman goes through in the society. She is seen as easy, disposable and just an object of attraction.
Bonnie and her mother-in-law often show distaste in the fact that Mimi is still into Vikram but the man in question seems to be free from any judgement. A strong single woman is often seen as a threat by the society and especially by other women. Mimi constantly struggles to find herself in the noise of the world.
Then there is the ever-smiling Shutu who has run away from home after failing to pass under graduation. He is desperately trying to fit in a place where he knows he doesn’t fit. There is deep-seated anger in him about the world that made him an outcast. His rebellion is contained within his heart as he fails to communicate with the world. His gradual decline into depression is missed by his family and friends who often become the trigger for it.
He knows they don’t need him, he knows they don’t care but we see him realise that over that the seven day period. Throughout the film, an existential crisis seems to be overpowering his developing identity.
Shutu is intensely disliked by Vikram, who portrays himself as the alpha male. Mimi’s inclination towards Shutu makes Vikram see him as a rival. He leaves no opportunity to put him down. Sometimes taking a game too far and beating up Shutu. While his friends dismiss it as the quick anger that Vikram always seems to have, no one tries to give it a deeper thought. It’s easier to term it as ‘usual’ than see it as a problem.
The sepia-toned film gives us a character we can relate to a little too much. But it also leaves us with a strong message: there is more to what you see in a person. Sometimes something as simple as asking how they feel, having a talk can be a step towards saving a soul.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.