Shot in the once utopian, now decaying Anglo-Indian community of McCluskiegunj, brittle, late 1970s-set “A Death in the Gunj” tells the story of a sensitive university student unraveling while on a week-long vacation with a crowd of cocksure relatives and family friends. The indie drama is perhaps of greatest interest as the feature writing-directing debut of actress Konkona Sensharma (“Mr. and Mrs. Iyer,” “Omkara,” “Life in a Metro”), daughter of the revered actress-writer-director Aparna Sen, and will resonate most with locals and Indian expats who can appreciate the nuances related to class and family position that outsiders might not catch. After opening the Mumbai fest in October, “Gunj” should segue to further fest play.
Making the eight-hour drive from “Cal” — short for Calcutta — to the gracious home of Auntie (Tanuja Mukherjee) and Uncle (Om Puri) in the Gunj in Bihar province are their controlling son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his attractive wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome), and their whiny eight-year-old daughter Tani (Arya Sharmav). Also along for the ride are Nandu’s quiet nephew Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a withdrawn 19-year-old student with some secrets, and sexy minx Mimi (Kalki Koechlin, “Margarita With A Straw”), a friend of Bonnie’s with a hidden agenda.
Although it takes a little while to figure out who is related to whom and how they connect, it’s clear from the very beginning that Shutu is treated like a poor relation and subject to casual cruelties. He’s the one that imperious Auntie commands to run various errands, while Nandu and Bonnie apparently expect him to look after Tani at all times. Shutu himself appears more comfortable with the little girl than with the loud, teasing adults, despite his wistful glances toward Mimi, who is rekindling an affair with Nandu’s arrogant, hot-tempered friend Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), even though he is a newlywed.
While Shutu’s main secret is not revealed until later in the film, we soon learn that his father is recently deceased and he still grieves for him. His mourning gives him a peculiar outlook on death, afterlife and ghosts, which renders him vulnerable to a mean séance joke played by Nandu and Vikram that proves eerily prescient.
For the most part, the action hurtles along at a hyperactive pace, although the film is at its best when it takes a minute to breathe and observe the characters quietly as they interact in group situations. One particularly revealing scene involves a New Year’s dinner to which Vikram brings his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan), a traditionally dressed beauty with a glorious singing voice, who is wearing the ancestral anklets gifted by Vikram’s mother, the daughter of a local Nawab. As Mimi drinks in the differences that separate her from her rival, she overdoes it with alcohol, smoothing the way for a seduction she will come to regret.
Inspired by a story that her father used to tell her, Sensharma’s rather superficial screenplay recreates the incident of a death in the Gunj, but fails to provide any sense of how the characters feel about their role in it — something which should have been at its core. Instead, most of the characters come off as unsympathetic and self-centered. In addition, she uses the tribal peoples of the area, the Adivasi, merely to add local color rather than to reflect any of the themes of the story.
Although Sensharma seems confident behind the camera, she directs her cast of name actors at too high a pitch. It becomes exhausting to watch their near-manic singing, dancing, and playing games. Nevertheless, veteran cinematographer Sirsha Ray makes good use of the decaying melancholy of the McCluskiegunj location to establish mood. The score by Sagar Desai is impressive but a tad overused.