After years of classing up Bollywood films like Wake Up Sid and being one of India’s go-to indie actresses, Konkona Sen Sharma makes a startlingly assured directorial debut in A Death in the Gunj.
It’s clear that Konkona Sen Sharma is an actor’s director. For her directorial debut, she’s assembled a veritable who’s who of Indian indie cinema, including Tillotama Shome, Gulshan Devaiah, Ranvir Shorey, and Kalki Koechlin, who are part of the central Bakshi clan. Set in the sleepy town of McCluskiegunj in 1979, the family gathers for a weeklong holiday before New Year’s, where picked-on cousin Shutu (a stunning Vikrant Massey) is our eyes to this intense family.
A Death in the Gunj, which has its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, works as a interesting character study between the callous world of adults and outsiders like Shutu, who would rather hang with the eight-year old Tani and read books in the garden. Sensitive and awkward, Shutu struggles to assert his masculinity against the rough Vikram (a brutish Ranvir Shorey), and gets tongue-tied around the beautiful Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). Massey conveys this coming-of-age with nuance and makes Shutu more than just a cipher he could have been written as.
Sen Sharma has an acute eye for textures between characters, like Shutu’s deflowering, where she cleverly puts him in the shy position while Mimi takes charge and straddles him in a chair with her sprained ankle rocking back and forth. It’s deeply sexy, and subverts the gaze in a very funny way. It’s those little touches that make Sen Sharma shine, as she’s keenly aware of creating a sense of place with the languorous cinematography by Sirsha Ray.
However, the narrative hurtles too quickly into a mystery too soon, and the characters veer too close to silliness. In its Chekhovian final act, the film threatens to go off the rails, but its Massey who keeps you engaged as Shutu implodes at the attitudes of the people around him. This harsh world is unkind to sensitive souls like Shutu, and for that Sen Sharma builds a character you can empathize with.
A Death in the Gunj is a terrific debut from Sen Sharma, who shares the same auteurist touches of her mother Aparna Sen and Satyajit Ray’s work. It’s her balance of style and character that makes her a director to watch out for in Indian cinema.