Ms. Representation: Man. Women. Child.
A look at the female gaze in Konkana Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj
Konkona Sen Sharma’s Death in the Gunj showcases the female gaze at its sensitive best. The film, that I caught again earlier this week, is based on a short story by Mukul Sharma, and unfolds gently at a pace that allows us to uncover the equations between various characters. It offers a wonderful peek into life in the late 70s, but does so without being too gimmicky... amid candles and spirits (both of the ghost and liquid variety), cigarettes, unhurried and largely unworried people, picnics by gentle brooks, games of chess, and kabaddi… All at the supremely atmospheric McCluskieganj, Bihar (now in Jharkhand).
In her directorial debut, Konkana shows admirable restraint, a quality that gives her film a great sense of depth. For a film set in the 70s, it could have easily descended down to a parade of ‘period’ elements, like we have seen before, a formulaic manipulation using soundtracks and colours. But Konkana introduces them subtly, without in-your-face ta-das, with delicate ‘aha’ moments—think bikes and cigarette wrappers, tape recorders and references (albeit censored) to Indira Gandhi and the emergency. Many of the scenes in the film are absolutely fresh and follow an unpredictable trajectory. From dancing to Toont gachhe bhooth nache while drinking hooch with the locals to dead moths in notebooks, the film offers new, fresh visuals that are devoid of clichés.
Konkana paints her women characters in all the colours they truly deserve and seldom receive in our cinema. Take the women out of A Death in the Gunj and there is nothing really; each more irreplaceable than the other. Not sure you can say the same about all the men in the film.
A Death… opens with a blue ambassador car into whose dickey, two worried men are trying to fit someone that’s dead. And then the film goes back seven days in time and then the story unravels.
At the heart of this film is a very delicate Shutu, who has recently lost his father, (played wonderfully by Vikrant Massey), and around him, a colourful set of characters, all equally self-involved. There’s the outspoken Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) on whom Shutu has an eye, even as she is trying to come to terms with the marriage of an ex-beau—the brash Vikram (Ranvir Shorey); there’s the quintessential, big brother (a cousin in this case) Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), who means well but has a short fuse, and his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) who cares for Nandu, and seems to accommodate him more than the others in the household. There’s Nandu’s parents--OP (Om Puri) who likes his tipple and gun a bit too much and Anupama (Tanuja), who is concerned about Shutu’s mother, and in whose eyes and words lie disappointment for Shutu. There’s the Anglo Indian Brian, looking forward to moving to Australia, and Nandu and Bonnie’s child Tani, who is Shutu’s only friend and ‘equal’. There’s also a smattering of other locals, like a baker and OP-Anupama’s live-in help.
Konkana’s crafting of her main man is at once interesting and refreshing. Shutu is sensitive and through his actions, we discover just how much, throughout the film. In many scenes, he stays literally behind closed doors, and until the end, we don’t see them open much. He lays low and waits to be invited. The protagonist’s relationship with the women (and child) around him is at the heart of A Death in the Gunj. Sure, the men all, one after another, go after him: at a ‘spirit inviting’ session, they prank him; at a game of kabbadi they injure him; as he learns to reverse the car and bangs into a wall they give him an earful. But it is the women in the film who ‘see’ him. Bonnie sees how fragile he is after the death of his father; Mimi, in one scene tells him, ‘You’re so pretty, you could be a girl’ and then goes on to develop a short, secret relationship with him; Tani is protective of him, learns from him and dotes on him; and Anupama is worried about him.
The film showcases the trappings of ‘toxic masculinity’ and how it breaks people in their fragile moments, and around all these men, who are telling Shutu he’s not a child any more, we see real flesh-and-blood women characters who aren’t cardboards meant to fill up space, but drive the plot and occupy the screen and our minds.
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema. Krupa Ge is a Chennai-based journalist, writer and editor.