Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence
As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”
The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…
As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.
Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.
A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.
The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.
The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport, in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.
Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.
And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.
Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.
The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.
That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.
That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.
There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.
The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.
The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.
Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.
Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,
“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”