The directorial debut of Indian actress Konkona Sen Sharma, A Death in the Gunj is a film steeped in nostalgia and suspense. Released in 2017, the film is set in December, 1978, in a small town called McCluskieganj in the present-day Indian state of Jharkhand. A coming-of-age story for the protagonist, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), it is also a film that indulges in nostalgia and how mental unraveling can go unnoticed. The film focuses on how Shutu tragically grows up.
In an interview with Sneha Bengani for News 18, Sen Sharma mentions how she had some characteristics of Shutu while growing up and the film was also based on her own family. She was bullied as a child in her school and her building; she was also very shy and introverted. Additionally, her parents owned a holiday home in McCluskieganj and Shutu was their relative who committed suicide. Though Sen Sharma outgrew her shyness, Shutu, in the film, does not. He and some others visit her mother’s sister’s house over after Christmas and new year. Shutu is bullied by most of the people there: his aunt (Tanuja) and her husband (Om Puri); their son, Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) and his wife, Bonnie (Tillotama Shome). He is also bullied by Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Brian (Jim Sarbh) and Bonnie’s friend, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin).
Shutu’s sensitivity is shown in numerous examples. Shutu’s mental illness is never explicitly mentioned nor diagnosed. The film provides clues that he may be depressed: he had lost his father some time back, failed his graduate school exams, moved from a small town to a big city for his studies, and seems to have very limited interactions with people of his own age. The downward spiral ends tragically for Shutu. Shutu is taken for granted because of his quiet, shy nature.
Everyone orders Shutu about as he is the youngest adult in the story. Three instances reinforce that Shutu needs to grow up: one is when Nandu is teaching him to drive a car and Shutu has a minor accident. The second scene is when Nandu informs Bonnie explicitly that Shutu needs to grow up. The last example is when Vikram punches him in a game of kabbadi, he realises that the world is a cruel place where alpha males and bullies like Vikram will always exploit him.
Shutu is always urged to grow up making him a figure of pity, ridicule, and an overgrown child who is too sensitive to the world. He needs support from his family, as shown by Bonnie and his aunt. Instead, he receives orders to man up and face the world.
Shutu’s quietness, shyness, and inability to express his desires, needs, and wishes result in his downfall. There does not seem to be any place for his artistic temperament, kindness, patience, introspection, concern for his aunt and mother, reverence for the dead, and respect for women. Shutu’s masculinity and sensitivity is contrasted with that of Nandu, Vikram, and Brian, who have sex (sometimes outside marriage), drink, smoke, and speak with sexual innuendoes.
Shutu’s situation mirrors the contemporary 1970s India where friends and family got together to have fun and play practical jokes at the expense of someone else. Shutu’s introversion does not have a place in a boisterous, extroverted society. This society also does not see mental illness as ‘normal’ but instead something that should not be discussed. A Death in the Gunj also draws on 1970s nostalgia, especially through the costumes of the characters and the setting of McCluskieganj, a beautiful and sleepy hill-station in India where people went to spend their vacations, away from the hustle of the city. Ironically, Shutu’s family and friends bring their own riotous lives into the town. They drink, dance, play games, and have fun but their rowdy life excludes or hurts Shutu, even though they do try to include him. Nostalgia for the 1970s India where men and women fulfilled their proper gender roles is evident in the film. Mimi helps Bonnie to cook, Bonnie is terrified of spiders and screams for her husband to help. The trio of adult men are fun-loving and very masculine, and Mimi is flirtatious.
A Death in the Gunj is a study of Shutu’s mental condition and his rites of passage as a growing young man. His instability is shown when he cries and wakes up at night. The film contrasts the two kinds of masculinity in 1970s India and is profound in its portrayal of how society can have consequences on a person and how seemingly innocuous actions, repeated over time, can result in trauma. It shows the difficulty of standing up against the dominant society, but also displays that mental illness is a regular occurrence, specifically in the lives of men.
by Rashmila Maiti