‘McCluskieganj: Your Visit Will Surprise You’ says a board by the roadside at the start of the film. Soon after, there is a milestone indicating that the town is 4.67 km away. A battered blue Ambassador ambles along picturesque fields towards the town. Shots of misty forests, verdant hills, old bungalows follow. After this build up, you settle down to watch a film rooted in a place, something Bollywood has always shied away from. It’s only recently that there has been a Bareilly Ki Barfi, or a Masaan and a Haseen Dilruba firmly situated in cities like Banaras and Haridwar.
But the director, Konkana Sen Sharma, lets you down. After the first few establishing shots of McCluskieganj, the rest of the film takes place in a bungalow which could be in any small town of the country. It is certainly a bold call by a filmmaker not to show the Taj Mahal in a film based in Agra, or a Paris story without a shot of the Eiffel Tower in it, like in the recent Jacques Adiard’s film Paris, 13th District. It is lazy to establish a place by showing its landmarks—a postcard way of filming. But in this case, a film set in a mysterious and faraway place like McCluskieganj about which you have read so much in books and articles with all the eccentric characters who people it—the Anglo-Indian community whose homeland it was, its rich culture of the Adivasis, the politics between the locals and the outsiders—all of which could have made the tapestry of A Death In The Gunj layered and complex.
But, alas, there is no McCLuskieganj in A Death In The Gunj. There is a stray Mrs Curney here and a Brian there but they have no back stories. Is Mrs Curney’s bakery from the days of the British rule, was her father English and why is she not so likeable? What about Brian, why does he look foreign and why does he speak Hindi with an accent? There are a few sequences of Adivasi rituals but these are just as token as a politician dancing with them on an occasional visit to the interiors of the country.
But beyond the missing gunj, the film works at many levels. All the characters, though a tad affected in parts, have a lived-in feel; the languid pace of the film is very ‘small town’. For a debut film, Sen Sharma is sure of her craft and leaves few rough edges. It’s a coming-of-age film with a talented ensemble case with most of them getting their act right.
Nandu Bakshi (played by Gulshan Devaiah, ever easy on the eye; you wonder why you don’t see more of him in Hindi films), his wife Bonnie and daughter Tani, along with Nandu’s cousin Shutu and Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), a friend of Bonnie, are on a visit to Nandu’s parents’ house in McCluskiegunj. There they are joined by his old friends, the hot-headed and boisterous Vikram and the cuddly Brian.
All the characters are etched well, but the film, as a loss-of-innocence tale, belongs to Vikrant Massey’s Shutu. He is a timid and gentle soul, very good at studies in school but has flunked college, and who is most comfortable in the company of young Tani, both of them goofing around in fields and flowerbeds. The aggressive Vikram torments him at every turn, particularly during a game of kabaddi bruising both Shutu’s torso and ego badly. There is a discomfiting scene with a séance, where everybody gathers around a table to call on a passing spirit to ask questions about the future. Vikram is at it again, ragging Shutu, and everyone at the table is in on the joke but soon it’s no laughing matter as Shutu is completely shattered by the end of it.
No coming-of-age film is complete without the blossoming of first-love. Shutu covets Mimi, a vivacious ingénue for whom he is just a plaything, a poodle at her beck and call. Mimi is in a physical relationship with her old flame Vikram, who has recently gotten married to a ‘local’ girl. But for Shutu it’s his first love which leads to disastrous consequences towards the climax, as a heartless and bored Mimi was only looking for an escapade.
Tillotama Shome is effortless as Bonnie but it’s not a role she gets to sink her teeth into. It’s good to see Tanuja as Nandu’s mother, Anupama Bakshi, though she mostly plays herself. Her scenes with her daughter-in-law are well written, with the right amount of warmth and distance. Om Puri as the old O P Bakshi, Nandu’s father, can play this role with his eyes closed, which he does most of the time as he is either snoozing or is tipsy. Ranvir Shorey as Vikram, with his long sideburns and tight leather jackets, plays the high-on-testosterone male with a mean-streak, to the hilt. But there is a vulnerable side to him too—he wants to end the affair with Mimi as he is married now.
The most heartwarming scenes in the film is the friendship between Shutu and the little girl, Tani. They chat about everything under the sun, skewer a beetle to death with a magnifying glass and then give it a dignified burial and hang around in the long afternoons doing nothing. But Tani senses Shutu gravitating towards Mimi and is old enough to feel a tinge of jealousy, which Shutu is unaware of. One of the pivotal scenes in the film is when Tani disappears and Shome comes into her own as the distraught mother, and everyone blames Shutu for it.
Few Indian actors have crossed over to the director’s chair successfully. Sen Sharma does it deftly. A Death In The Gunj doesn’t suffer from the nerves that plague many a debut film. It must not be easy to handle an ensemble cast, to shoot on location and keep a taut script. But one question ought always haunt the viewer: why was McCluskieganj not given a more prominent role in the film? It is based on the director’s father, Mukul Sharma’s short story which we are told is ‘based on true events.’ Did the story have nothing more about Macluskieganj apart from the happenings in this one family? Even so, couldn’t the film transcend the short story and give a more vivid account of the place it is located in? You want to hear McCluskieganj speak, you want to know its inside workings, you want to see its streets and its crumbling houses, its colourful residents and its rich past, but you are left askance when the film ends.