I saw A Death in the Gunj last week. There’s a sense of haunting melancholia that has stayed with me since then.
The movie, set in the 1979 of McCluskieganj, deals with a discordant family and certain very complex inter-personal relationships. The pace of the film is nuanced and measured, and it is probably this laid-back pace which at times lends an almost eerie feeling to the movie; being unhurried, it builds up a tension somewhere in the pit of the stomach.
Konkona Sen Sharma , in her first debut feature film does a laudable job in etching out each character with precision and also uses her actors beautifully. The protagonists excel. Om Puri and Tanuja need no mention. Ranveer Shorey as Vikram is superlative and you will hate him for showing his ruthless side and machismo. Gulshan Devaiah as Nandu is at times cruel and yet there’s a sense of kindness too. Tilottoma Shome delivers a very controlled Bonnie. Kalki Koechlin is absolutely the seductress and yet vengeful Mimi. She uses sex unabashedly and doesn’t feel the need to hide her brazenness. But the character who will stay with you is Vikrant Massey as Shatu . He will just be sitting behind you as he was, and be with you even as you come out of the theatre. He is the conscience as Soma A Chatterjee mentioned. The first scene is from his perspective… the camera angle is from within the dickey of the car and in the last scene, his death and he sits on the conscience of Nandu and Brian.
Based on a short story by Mukul Sharma, Konkona has created an atmosphere of studied casualness, yet underneath every layer lay a sense of mellowness in an otherwise disquieting mood. The period feel of the film is never overtly or forcefully created. The sleepy Gunj is not shown in great detail, yet the ambience and the period is almost a character in this movie. Every frame in this movie is worth a watch and some are sheer poetry. The shot when Shatu packs his bag and the window is half open with the mosquito net rolled up or the insect being burnt with the magnifying glass or the jerky movement leading up to the catastrophic climax. And then there is the shot of the sun setting on another day and the tyre swinging by.
This somehow reminded me of The Seagull by Chekhov. Konstantin just shot himself and Shutu of Vikram Massey reminded me of Ramaprasad Banik in the adapted play staged by Chenamukh called Pakhi.
I asked Sirsha Ray, the cinematographer (we have been to school together) about his journey starting from the year 1999 till date, at the time when he started and how he started. While writing this I realized that how he started and how he got into FTII Pune, post an M Sc, or how he honed his skills and what he watched while learning his skills; call for a separate article.
So here’s an excerpt from a tete-a-tete with Sirsha Ray about A Death In the Gunj –
Sudarshana – How it was working with Konkona SenSharma, the Director in her debut feature film, as both of you started your career together in 1999 with the film called Ek Je Ache Kanya?
Sirsha – It of course felt nice when she called me to shoot her film. Because we had worked in the first film and subsequently had done other work too, there was an easy camaraderie between us which helped in the entire process. I have always found her an extremely keen observer about all the genres of movie making. She is very very meticulous about her craft and had her ideas and visions distinctly sketched out.
Sudarshana– You have worked both with the mother, the famous Ms Aparna Sen and now her daughter Konkona as Directors. Any thoughts on that?
Sirsha – Aparna Sen is one of the most prolific film makers of our times and a name to be reckoned with. But with Konkona too, it never felt that it was her debut feature film. Being different individuals, their point of view and their art of story -telling are completely different. But both have an innate and a natural ability of storytelling.
Sudarshana — What was the most challenging shot in A Death in the Gunj?
Sirsha – It would be difficult to say off hand which was the most challenging shot!
Sudarshana – I insist!
Sirsha – Okay! The shot when the planchett is taking place, and there’s this string tied to the foot of an actor and the camera had to move out of the room to the corridor, following the thread… that was a little tricky shot. Then there are apparently fairly simple shots… which were the most challenging. For example, when the car first comes in and the car headlight falls on the name plaque, or the shots where everyone was looking for Tani. There’s just a minute or a half when you can take these shots, because in the next minute it will be pitch dark. These times, bordering between dusk and evening are my personal favorites, but the planning for these shots have to be absolutely meticulous and there can’t be retakes. These can be called a little challenging, in terms of the technicalities.
Sudarshana – What is/ are the most satisfying shots from A Death In the Gunj?
Sirsha – (Laughs) Ok… Every cinematographer will probably tell you this, that the most satisfying shot was edited out, but that editing has made the movie what it is. It was required. So… can’t tell you that too.
Sudarshana – Again, I insist… what is the most satisfying one amongst those which remain in the film?
Sirsha – The one when the sun sets amidst the branches of the trees and the empty tyre swings. That kind of sets a sense of melancholia creeping in and yet that shot if taken out of the context of the present film, still etches an indelible mark.
That then… was our take on A Death in the Gunj and a small question-answer session with the eminent cinematographer who have made the dark and dismal shots poetic in this film.
Do watch the movie. It needs to be watched and rewatched because you will discover layers in each of those viewings.
Let us know your thoughts.
Love and light
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