‘Death in the Gunj’ steeped in atmospherics of small-town intrigue

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If you have ever been to a small town for your summer holidays, listened in wide-eyed wonder as adults swapped stories around the dinner table and spent languid afternoons lying on the grass, then Konkona Sen Sharma’s “A Death in the Gunj” is just the film for you.

Set in 1979 in a small town called McCluskieganj, the film is steeped in atmospherics, which is one of the reasons why it works so well. You are drawn into the world of the Bakshis and their deceptively cozy holiday from the very first scene, where two men discuss matter-of-factly how they can best fit a body into the backseat of a blue Ambassador car.

In a flashback from seven days earlier, we see the same car trundling along towards a family’s holiday destination. Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) and cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey) are spending Christmas at his parents’ house. His childhood friend Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) also live in the same town, and the days after are filled with drunken evenings, impromptu games of kabaddi and long afternoon naps.

Much like the town they live in, these characters also have a Raj-era hangover. They sing Auld Lang Syne, have elaborate afternoon tea time and speak in clipped British accent. Reminiscent of Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” and Umesh Kulkarni’s “Vihir”, Sen Sharma deftly uses the family get-together as a setting for skeletons to come tumbling out, and the bonhomie among the revellers belies the tensions running beneath the surface – like Vikram’s constant flirting with Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) despite being married, or the bullying of Shutu by the other men.

Shutu is a misfit who longs to be a part of the group but always finds himself on the periphery – the butt of seemingly good-natured jokes and always the third wheel. A sensitive young man who finds himself out of sorts in this world of manly men and their exhortations to him to “grow up”, Shutu is the centre of the film, and Vikrant Massey makes sure he makes the most of his role. He is coy, vulnerable and haunted in what is a pitch-perfect performance.

Shipra Ray’s cinematography catches just the right amount of golden sunlight that bathes McCluskieganj and Sen Sharma seems to have such an intimate knowledge of her setting and characters that you feel a sense of intimacy in the story that would otherwise not be possible.

“A Death in the Gunj” is wonderfully observed, stunningly shot and thanks to Massey’s breakout performance, a must-watch in theatres.