The word 'slow' in a movie review is more often than not construed as overlong, sluggish, and boring. Let's face it, it's a bad word especially when used to describe a film's pace. "A Death in the Gunj", directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, is a keenly observed drama, rich in atmospherics, brilliantly performed, and yes, it has a slow-burning rhythm. But it's never boring. The unhurried pace, in fact, is entirely fitting for the world she transports us to.
This is the sleepy town of McCluskieganj, near Ranchi, and we're in the late 1970s, a time before the Internet and mobile phones. A sturdy Ambassador packed with family and friends makes the eight-hour drive from Calcutta to the remote, rural home of the Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja).
The guests include Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), the elderly couple's son, a cocksure young man, his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), and their precocious eight-year-old daughter. They're accompanied by Nandu's cousin Shutu (Vikrant Massey), and by Bonnie's friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin).
Family reunions and celebrations can be tricky affairs, and Konkona, who reveals a deep understanding of human nature, layers these scenes with unspoken complexities, egos, and tensions. On the surface, everyone seems to be having a good time. Well, perhaps not everyone.
As often tends to happen in group situations, one person usually the mildest is singled out and routinely victimized by attention-seeking bullies in a display of misguided machismo. The victim here is Shutu. Reserved and always on the edge, he's the butt of everyone's jokes and pranks, particularly the aggressive alpha male in the group, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), a friend of Nandu.
It's hard to go any deeper into detail about the dynamics within the group without ruining the experience for you. But I will tell you that you quickly become invested in the characters as they reveal themselves over alcohol and heartbreak, or when they're pushed against the wall. A lot happens over the course of the week old connections are rekindled, excessive drinking leads to bad decisions, a key character goes missing, and it all builds up to an explosive climax that the film's title alludes to.
It's easy to see why you're drawn to these people and why their world feels so immersive. The performances across the board are naturalistic and understated, but a few actors deserve special mention. Kalki Koechlin is mercurial as the temptress hiding complex feelings in her heart, and Ranvir Shorey imbues his sadistic character with just enough humanity to never slip into stereotype. At the center of the drama, however, and standing out for his abundant talent and undeniable presence is Vikrant Massey. As the troubled young Shutu, he makes you want to reach out so you can assure him that it's going to be okay. It's a genuinely heartfelt performance, and I suspect this young man is going to go places.
The film is richer also on account of its remarkable technical accomplishments, especially Sirsha Ray's brown and yellow-soaked frames, and an evocative background score by Sagar Desai that never feels invasive or disturbing.
"A Death in the Gunj" benefits from Konkona Sen Sharma's perceptive, assured direction. It's one of the best films of the year, and one that you'll find hard to shake off in a hurry. I'm going with four out of five and a strong recommendation not to miss it.
Rating: 4 / 5