Death and Fragility in the Gunj

Social Commentary

Death and Fragility in the Gunj

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Afew days ago, I sat down to dinner with a close friend, when the conversation veered toward his childhood. Growing up in his paternal grandfather’s ancestral house in Mangalore, my friend, a fat, bookish kid, had it rough. He would be the last person to be picked in a game of cricket with cousins, would routinely be locked up in a dark room on rainy afternoons by the older boys, and be the butt of an unending stream of fat jokes.

What it wrought in him, this onerous childhood, was a fundamental question of his identity and his interests. It took several years to unlearn the behaviours he was socialised around. He knew he was different from the boys around him in that he wasn’t sporty or confident enough, and fell several yards short of the type A masculine personality due to which he faced a kind of crippling, life-altering ridicule.

My friend outgrew the rigid boundaries of gender standards and the petty demons of his family. But Shutu – the unlikely hero of Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj – whose mental state is slowly fraying at the edges, is unable to.

Somewhere along the middle of the mesmerising A Death in the Gunj, Shutu and Tani, his 8-year-old companion and the only person who doesn’t look upon him as a failure, lie on their stomachs on an indolent winter afternoon, focusing the sunlight through a magnifying glass on a fly crawling on a crunchy leaf. Under the heat of the scrutiny, the bug dies a swift death. It’s a cruel move and out of character for the quiet and withdrawn Shutu, who is repeatedly described as “sensitive” and who preserves dead butterflies between the pages of his diary. But he is only playing out the micro-aggressions he has been facing all week at the hands of his large, extended family.

It is the last week of 1978. Shutu is 23 and has just completed his MSc; Tani is old enough to demand a puppy but young enough to be bored by it. It is an unlikely partnership, but an easy one to forge in a family where the duo is treated a little like extra baggage, a minor inconvenience on a vacation. Both Tani and Shutu sit at the periphery of the world of supposedly well-adjusted grown-ups and are allowed a tantalising peek inside, but are never quite welcome in it: Tani because she’s not adult enough, Shutu because he’s not man enough.

Shutu’s tormentors are not some external bullies. It is his family, that knows him best and is aware of his chinks; the family bungalow turns into a metaphor for oppression.

This sense of inadequacy never fails to leave Shutu, played with touching fragility by Vikrant Massey. Shutu, with his thin arms dissolving into his dead father’s sweater; who maintains a list of favourite words, is startled easily, and is the last one to be picked in a game of kabaddi. Shutu, who is told that he’s as pretty as a girl by the woman he is infatuated with. Surrounded by the older, hipper, successful Nandu and Vikram, Shutu seems to disappear into the walls. He is completely hapless in the presence of all the signifiers of alpha-maleness – guns, bikes, sport, cars, cigarettes, and crudities. With no other outlets to channel his frustration, Shutu unravels by night, pounding the wall in his sleep, tears streaming down his face.

Men like Shutu are all around us. Their story plays out on endless loop across boarding school playgrounds in India, where children, not-yet-men, are forced to confront a microcosm of the world that expects them to be alpha males and suffer if they’re not. Even Sensharma based the movie’s script on her father’s short story derived from true incidents. But rarely have we witnessed their internal struggles on screen, or even in literature. Popular culture is replete with men who pine heroically over love, after an unattainable partner, or who wrestle with their sexuality on one side, and heroes who lead with the force of their personality, their maleness, on the other. But where do we see the stories of in-between men who’re unable to reach the gold standard of masculinity? The men who feel too much and “man-up” too little?

A Death in the Gunj

Vikrant Massey as Shutu in a still from A Death in the Gunj

These are not men who have been ragged mercilessly or bullied with intended malice. Shutu’s tormentors are not some external bullies. It is his family, that knows him best and is aware of his chinks; the family bungalow turns into a metaphor for oppression. The dime turns swiftly from a place of restitution, into that of abrasion; a warm blanket in one hand, a razor in the other.

What’s most heartbreaking about the whole affair is that none of the bullying that Shutu faces is obvious or intended to drive him further against the wall. He’s almost like a sort of improvement project for Nandu, who while vending an impromptu driving lesson, thinks nothing of whacking his cousin over the head in the presence of his daughter. “This is how you learn, Tani,” Nandu tells the young girl sternly. Even Vikram’s barely controlled aggression is excused as a way for Shutu to grow stronger.

The tenuous connection between Shutu and his family is finally severed when Tani gives up on him. Mimi has asked him to “run along” after screwing him, his aunt is forcing him to go back to his widowed mother, and the rest of the family forgets that he hasn’t even returned from a midnight search. Eventually, there’s nothing left to care about.

Maybe there would have been, if Shutu had known that there are alternatives. That cousins grow up to be losers, exams can be passed, that something else fills up the almost permanent feeling of loss of a dead parent. That even for men like Shutu who feel so deeply, life goes on.