A Death in the Gunj Review

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You have no idea how much I had been looking forward to A Death in the Gunj, written and directed by Konkona Sensharma and starring some great actors like Kalki Koechlin. I saw some wonderful reviews of the film online before it even released in mainstream cinemas, as some people had the chance to see the film in screenings at film festivals early on. This further increased my anticipation of what I expected to be an impactful film at the least. If you are just as excited about the film, haven’t seen it yet and would like to form your own opinion of it, I suggest you stop reading the remaining part of the review.

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The matter of fact is, A Death in the Gunj was disappointing. It was shockingly underwhelming and predictable, and not the least thrilling if you ask me. There is only one point of mystery in the film, which I admit was delivered effectively and connected the very first scene with the very last one. But the middle of that story, was nothing special.

A Death in the Gunj is about a young man struggling with life after the death of his father, and how his depression and emotional struggle reaches a sad climax amidst indifferent and selfish relatives with whom he is spending the holidays.

While I enjoy slow-paced  but meaningful films that create a sense of comfort and ease, like Piku for example, I believe it only works when we are able to establish a genuine and positive connection with the characters early on in the story. I was unfortunately not able to connect with any of the characters in this film. In fact, I felt the film did an excellent job of making the characters repugnant, not just to the lead character Shyamal, but to me, the audience. Maybe that was the point. But the issue is that, I also did not feel any connection to Shyamal.

I think the struggle of Shyamal remained as much of a mystery to the audience as it did to his relatives. Shyamal as a character is such an unbearing personality, that it is easy to dismiss him although he is the eyes through which we experience the story. He is much like an object in the film, represented by his father’s old sweater, his notebook, a moth… but the meanings and emotions that he attaches to those objects were never quite explained to us. So as I watched his turmoil intensify and grow on screen, I did not understand him and his reasons, and after a while, it was just watching a man who has lost his mental stability and getting ever yet closer to the edge without anyone else noticing.

When I read my own words describing the film, I wonder if this was Konkona’s intention all along? –Making the Shyamal character so unimpressive that even we would nearly forget his presence… Could it be that the film  has been implemented so utterly realistically that I’ve failed to get the point? Perhaps… I’m not sure.

I AM sure that knowing the excellence of Konkona’s art may have increased expectations a little too far for this film, but it doesn’t change the fact that the above mentioned drawbacks disappointed me. When the film ended, I just felt so underwhelmed.

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How Films Influence Our Notions of Death and the After-world

I think it was in 1993 or 1994 that I had a birthday party screening the one and only 1988 cult classic “Beetlejuice.” (A 7 year old’s birthday party with Beetlejuice, and that too in Turkey, weird family I know…). As an adult, I still love this film, and not only because of its unique premise, but also how the usually ghastly topic of death is portrayed in such a humorous way. Until then in cinema, we had not considered that the dead could be a sweet couple from the suburbs, or that the after-world could be a waiting room not too different than a dentist’s. There are very few films that have actually tackled death in this satirical way, and maybe this is also why the film obtained such cult status over the years.

Bhoot World Mein Teen Cheezo ki Kami HaiThe 2008 Hindi film Boothnath starring Amitabh Bachchan followed a similar path, albeit with less humor. It was successful in normalizing death and the dead however, just as Beetlejuice had done. In Boothnaath, the dead was a grouchy but good-hearted old man (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost in fact), and the after-world was basically an Indian government office.

There have been a few other Indian films that have helped disseminate some of the stigma attached to death, for example the 2013 Telugu horror comedy Prema Katha Chitram and the 2012 Bengali film Hemlock Society. Rather than using satire to display a fantasized and ironically ‘normal’ death, these films mocked suicide by suggesting suicide, thereby bringing attention to high suicide rates among youth in India.

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It’s rather sad that this humorous and satirical take on death and what await us afterward, cannot become more mainstream in cinema. There is a plethora of films and TV shows releasing daily that remind us of the horror that we normally associate with death– serial killers, revengeful murders, painful accidents, and after it’s over, zombies, vampires, ghosts and demons to haunt us and give us sleepless nights. If you notice, death is the main thread in all horror products. I don’t think we even realize the extent to which the big screen influences how we think of death. If only more cinema could take death as lightly as it often does life, and remove some of the stigmas and subconscious fears usually associated with it.