'A Death in the Gunj' Review: Konkana Sen Sharma shines in her directorial debut

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

A Death in the Gunj is a slice of life film written and directed by Konkana Sen Sharma. The film, which premiered at the 21st Toronto International Film Festival, marks her directorial debut (with Konkana following the footsteps of her filmmaker-actress mother, Aparna Sen). A Death in Gunj was also the opening film for the 18th Mumbai Film Festival where it won the MasterCard Best India Female Filmmaker 2016 Award. The movie features an ensemble cast that includes of the likes of Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Vikrant Masey, Tillotama Shome, Tanuja, and the late Om Puri—making one of his last screen appearances. The film is based on a story by Mukul Sharma—Konkana’s father—that’s inspired by true events. 

A Death in the Gunj is set in the town of McCluskieganj (based in Jharkhand) during the winter of 1978-79 and revolves around a seemingly routine family reunion during the week-long Christmas vacation. Remember this is the ‘70s and we are still good three decades away from the age of social media. Also, since McCluskieganj is a small town even for making a telephone call one is required to go to the post office. And so letters are the most viable means of communication. And aptly some of the key communications in the movie take place in form of letters changed between two elderly women. 

A Death in the Gunj is driven by its plot and its panoply of interesting characters. We have Vikram (essayed by Shorey) who is a bully of sorts. His hairdo with long sideburns is vintage ‘70s and he wears a moustache as a symbol of masculinity. We have Mimi (played by Kalki Koechlin) whose sexual appeal easily attracts all sorts of men and she loves the attention she gets from them. Then we have the timid but bright Shutu (essayed by Vikrant Massey) who is the butt of everybody’s jokes. Apart from these three principal characters we have other interesting characters that give them great support such as little Tani who shares a strong bond with Shutu, the benevolent Anupama Aunty (essayed by Tanuja) and the fussy O.P Uncle (essayed by Om Puri). Konkana seems keen on examining the relationship dynamics between the various characters and she largely succeeds in her examination. 

Konkana is spot on with her casting. Even a National Award-winning actress like Kalki Koechlin had to do not one but two auditions to finally convince her that she was the right choice for the part. A Death in the Gunj is neatly packaged and the pacing is absolutely superb. Tense, titillating, and tempestuous are the three adjectives that best describe the film. The performances of Massey, Shorey and Koechlin are brilliant and in that very order. Undoubtedly, this is a breakthrough role for Massey who is known for playing supporting characters in films like Lootera and Half Girlfriend. As for Shorey, no praise is high enough for him; with each new role he seems to only get better. The film succeeds in evoking a strong sense of nostalgia for family outings with our grandparents that we all begin to miss more and more as we grow into adults. Movies like this one are all about setting the right mood and Konkana, to her credit, succeeds in achieving just that, right from opening shot till the very last one. A Death in the Gunj is far from being a perfect film but it nonetheless serves as a fine example of cinematic storytelling.

Rating: 7.5/10

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