Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Notes on A Death in the Gunj, by Konkona Sensharma, India: 2016

you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in a while, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism

A moment in the first 20 minutes of the film, a seemingly unimposing scene: A young man called Shutu takes an old pullover which once belonged to his recently deceased father. He smells on it an finally puts it on. Later as the film proceeds we will realize that this scene carries already the DNA of the whole film. For now there is nothing more to know that he is distressed by his grieve and very very lonely with it.

It was just a day before the screening in Berlin when I learned by accident that Konkona Sensharma´s A Death in the Gunj one of the films I was waiting for in this year, was shown in my city during an Indogerman Festival. I took a deep breath because I almost missed this note. The excitement has a long history. It was her performance in Shonali Bose´s Amu which lead me to Mr. And Mrs Iyer by Aparna Sen and with that to all the glory to her mother´s work as a director. Konkona Sen Sharma became one of my favorite actresses, Aparna Sen one of my favorite film directors alive. As much about her family.

The morning after the screening I read again Anjan Dutt´s enthusiastic review of A Death in the Gunj. Strangely the film evoked in me in another kind but likely strong my personal echo of the 1970s like Dutt´s masterpiece Dutta Vs Dutta – despite the visible specific hints to a country and culture strange to me. I mean this dynamic between the perception of the strangeness of this culture and at the same time the recognition of the universality of human behavior. The leather jacket of Ranvir Shorey evoked quite a déya vu in me and I almost had this specific smell of leather in my nose. And between what the film is and what it evokes in me, a kind of resonant cavity arises for me. As accidental as it is, I realized on my way home that Shutu is exactly of my generation and there are some parts of him that I and probably a lot of male spectators will recognize if they like it or not. Quite a mixture of feelings are flooding my mind like in one of these heavy bizarre dreams between desire, fear and depression.

The opening of the film is a mystery which will dissolved at the end of the film and which gives the film from the beginning a subliminal suspense. Two men are looking into a boot of their car at a corps which remains invisible to us. As we see them from the perspective of the unknown dead, it is a ghostly non-human perspective. Soon the film opens a flashback seven days before and tells this in exactly 7 chapters. We have no idea what will happen but we are sure something will happen.

A group of city people consisting of family members and friends arrive at a former Anglo-Indian town to spend holiday in one of these old houses. The location seems already engrossed and nearby there are tribal people. For now the film remembers me in Satyajit Ray´s masterpiece Aranyer Din Ratri mixed with a subtle suspense. Without knowing where the film will lead us the slight suspense originated from the opening sharpens our attention to even the smallest detail. The group of people which has just arrived are neither bigger nor smaller than life just perceptible enough for us to connect with them. But as the film proceeds, the holiday idyll reveals small cracks, very small at the beginning but steady growing. The growing doubt that nothing is what it seems causes concern. The protagonists kill time with parlor games, drinking and macabre jokes mostly on the cost of the young sensitive Shutu. One of these subtle but nevertheless disturbing signs is the attitude of the city people towards their servants. As a tribal dance is like a welcomed tourist attraction the contempt of the city people towards the servants is revealed but also the other way around. For the servants the city people are just annoying strangers.

In several interviews, Sensharma always mentioned her empathy for Shutu, because “Men are often victims of the patriarchal system itself”. In her film Shutu will be teased at the beginning than bullied and finally he will be even beaten and hurt. The physical injuries caused by one of these stupid horse plays are visible, the mental ones only perceptible in his face the camera explores and in his posture.
The ensemble of characters are like a color palette of possibilities of human behavior concerted with each other: Tillotama Shome and Kalki Koechlin, two conflictive women or the conflict between the nearly unchained macho Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and the young sensitive almost androgynous Shutu (Vikrant Massey), to mention some of them. In this nowhere land between the adults and a little bored girl girl called Kana, there is Shutu placed. All together this group is something like a kaleidoscope of different human types.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)

The former Anglo-Indian town itself appears like a nowhere land between city and countryside, between culture and nature, the always present nature which is already reconquering this man-made location. And between the human definition of rules, gender or power and submission the nameless undefined presence of nature is perceptible. The conditioned human culture appears sometimes like a prison.
When some of the adult men Nandu or Vikram are trying to “toughen up” the fragile Shutu, their motivation is based on this imposed darwinian understanding of nature, a man-made interpretation of nature. The film itself suggests rather a separation or an alienation between men and nature. There is rather an indifferent coexistence between men and nature. In some of these intense cinema scope-images we see the mighty forest and a tiny street. Most of the characters do not have an eye for this beauty, but it often seems this nature watches them. There is an uncanny encounter between Shutu( who falls into a traphole) and a wolf. It is not more than a short eye contact but nevertheless one of the most mysterious moments in this film. We realize that the biggest part of the world which we captured in words lead an existence of its own. And finally the conditioning in which we define the world separates us from nature.

Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) seduces Shutu twice. At first when she is very drunk. Her behavior is a mirroring of both, Vikram who takes what he wants but in her oppressed needs as well of Shutu. She calls him “very beautiful, almost like a girl.” The first seducing scene is symptomatic for the film, an combination of revealing and indicating. The second seducing scene takes place on a grave yard, literally between the dead. sex once in Terrence Malick´s Song to Song poetic defined as “The flame of life” appears here in Sen Sharma´s film as a naked reflex against the fear of death or at least between the wrong persons at the wrong place and wrong time. None of Sensharma´s characters are explicit evil but most of them are careless and unable to feel empathy. This affair triggers a chain of events which lead to the film´s stirring finale which I can´t reveal but which is – still in my system.

The end credits are rolling on a street surrounded by the forest at night seen from the rear window of a driving car, a travelling shot which is in its spookiness evoking in me memories in Murnau´s Nosferatu. Literally the last traces of light are sinking into darkness of the final fade out. This often underrated ritual of cinema, this transition between the film projection and the reality is here as well a little piece of art in its own right
This a very versatile film, playing with different traditions and genres of cinema. The suspense is as decent as the film music but strong enough to engross us. A Death in the Gunj is as well an example of an excellent use of this cinema scope format. This format once invented for films bigger than life in the competition against the rising Television in the 1950s and later used rather for artistic visions, especially by the Japanese since the late 1950s. Sensharma uses in her film this format in a nearly perfect dynamic between opulence (visible especially in the wonderful landscape shots) and intimacy, between chamber piece and landscape panorama.

A Death in the Gunj is not only an impressing film debut feature. It is still echoing in my mind. In simple words – good films like A Death in the Gunj are rooted in the glorious history of cinema, enriching the presence of it and at the same time they offering new perspectives for it´  future.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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