There are films that make you love an actor, and then there are others, where a character grows on you. A Death in the Gunj by Konkona Sensharma is one where an actor and his character both made sense. Vikrant Massey played the protagonist Shutu in the film, and I’d like to call him that as I know the reason behind it. Years before, I had read a book in Bangla called Ghunpoka. It’s one of the finest novels by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay and one of the best on Melancholia, ever written. The protagonist there, Shyam, was a melancholic youth, eating on his own life in bits and pieces. I wouldn’t say Shutu has a great resemblance with Shyam, but there is a faint familiarity.
The film begins with visitors entering the gunj, McLuskiegunj in Bihar, 1978. There’s a couple and their child, visiting their parents with a friend and cousin Shutu. More friends arrive and it is a fete on cold winter evenings that turns mostly into a melee – in the sense that more people are hurt. There’s no denying that Shutu seems unimpressive in the beginning. He’s shy, a little less masculine in his looks, that may even be bordering to cute, and he’s timid. You notice the flamboyance of the other characters immediately – the retired father, the then modern mother, the pragmatic son, the endearing daughter-in-law, the sexy friend, the flirt friend and a nice kid. Everyone flourishes, has their own scenes, frames, and dialogues, while Shutu sulks at a corner. Well, he has his own reasons, primary being the untimely death of his father.
Shutu is sad, angry, dishevelled, frustrated and confused at the turn of events and in awe of the people around him. Vikrant Massey metamorphoses into Shutu seamlessly. He looks appropriately like a youngster from 1978 with long sideburns, wearing payjama-panjabi like a Bengali Bhadralok, a PhD aspirant in science with no airs about it. He feels jilted when the girl he likes treats him casually for a one night stand, immediately reverting back to her flashy married boyfriend. I particularly liked the scene where Shutu doodles in his diary and chants a few words from his list of E to his niece Tani. It’s enduring, the delicate undulations of his character, that vary from treating one person to another. I found Vikrant Massey to be perfectly cast along with the other wonderful actors, of course. Gulshan Devaiah is so under-rated in Indian cinema for inexplicable reasons. Others are famous in their own accords – Ranvir Shorey, Tilottoma Shome, Kalki, Tanuja and Om Puri.
Konkona Sensharma deserves more accolades than she received for this debut film of hers. She has managed to recreate 1978 in a small, sleepy town with backdrops hitherto unexplored in popular Hindi cinema. There’s resemblance, that might be a planned tribute, with Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Dinratri in a similar setting and about four friends. Konkona has dealt sensitively with her protagonists and a few issues like adult bullying and casual cruelty. These play an important part in understanding Shutu (and the others) and figure out the reason behind the ‘death’ in gunj. The fact that the film is based on a short story (by Konkona’s father Mukul Sharma), which in turn, is based on real incidents – doesn’t take away any credit from the director, but adds multiple feathers in her crown for executing the story with aplomb in her own capacity.
I’d be waiting for Konkona’s next. And if someone is casting, do consider Vikrant Massey for the role of Supratik Ghosh from Neel Mukehrjee’s ‘The Lives of Others.’