Sir begins in a village in what I assume is the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. A young woman is about to return to Mumbai where she is a live-in domestic servant in the apartment of a young man who should be on his honeymoon. But the marriage did not take place and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is now in a potentially difficult situation. Previously the young couple were living together in the apartment and the young architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) is now on his own. What follows over the next week is a form of ‘odd couple’ drama. The narrative is deceptively simple but carries both an emotional weight and a subtle social commentary. It is a very fine and delicate piece of filmmaking, deserving its appearance in Cannes Critics Week in 2018. Rohena Gera makes her début as a fiction feature writer-director though she has considerable experience in both American and Indian film industries.
Gera trained in the US and she clearly knows the Mumbai upper middle-class and the largely English-speaking families whose sons and daughters have been to university in the US. But she has done her research carefully and the narrative is largely driven by the village woman who has come to Mumbai, hoping to send money home and to train as a tailor in whatever spare time she can find. Ratna was widowed at 19 soon after her marriage, placing her in a difficult situation in her traditional village – which she hopes to escape in the city.
Tillotama Shome gives a wonderful performance in a role for which she had to learn Marathi to converse with her character’s family. At work Ratna needs enough Hindi and English to cope with her role as a ‘domestic’. Most reviewers refer to Shome’s role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) but in the Press Notes Gera tells us that it was Shome’s performance in Qissa (2013) that convinced her that the Bengali star of independent and mainstream cinema was right for the role. She also reveals that although she was impressed by Vivek Gomber’s terrific performance in Court (2014) she didn’t think he was right for the role of Ashwin. Fortunately, friends convinced her she was wrong and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as Gomber manages to find the perfect combination of frustration, decency and repressed emotion to suggest how Ashwin feels. Although she is only in a supporting role Geetanjali Kulkarni makes an important contribution as Ratna’s fellow domestic servant, Laxmi, from a neighbouring apartment where she is a nanny (ayah?) cum maid/housekeeper – a rather different role to her public prosecutor pitted against Vivek Gomber in Court. But Kulkarni’s characters often seem to be working-class or what in the UK would be lower middle-class. The nuances of class are just as important in India. Ratna’s difficult position in Sir is beautifully illustrated in the sequence in which Ashwin’s parents hold a reception where, as a servant, Ratna is virtually invisible. She serves guests and then returns to the kitchen where squatting on the floor she joins the other servants to eat their food. When Ashwin comes to speak to her, he embarrasses her in front of her friends – people should know their place. At this point Ashwin and Ratna know that they cannot be together. The social class divisions are too important and other people would suffer if they attempt to cross boundaries.
Rohena Gera finds an ingenious way to end her narrative. I’ve seen some Western reviews from Cannes that don’t really ‘get’ the story but this one from an Indian critic makes sense to me. Baradwaj Rangan points out that Gera covers several important social issues in Modi’s ‘Shining India’ but that she first makes a film rather than an argument. I think he’s right. There is something universal and humanist about the story which is also rooted in Indian society. Formally the narrative presents between a ‘closed’ romance melodrama within the flat where the mise en scène says a lot about the invisible barriers between the employer and servant with shots of Ratna’s room, the ‘dividing walls’ of the apartment and the wariness with which the characters approach each other. But when we move outside the building and follow Ratna around the city and back to the village, a different sort of story develops. The neutral location turns out to be on the roof of the building. In a Cannes interview Rohena Gera explains what she thought this overall split meant. Fundamentally though, the film works because of two terrific central performances. YouTube features a Cannes interview by the two actors together which reveals how much they worked with each other to build a convincing relationship.
I enjoyed the film very much and I look forward to seeing what Rohena Gera does next. Here’s a sequence in which Ratna and Laxmi borrow the doorman’s scooter and go shopping. If you go to YouTube you can find the second Cannes clip in which Ratna and Ashwin are together in the flat . . .
. . . and here is the international trailer:
For several reasons this film is key to an understanding of what ‘Not Just Bollywood’ might mean in relation to the history of film traditions in India and in particular, the history of filmmaking described as ‘independent’ or ‘parallel cinema’ which is the primary interest of the season’s co-curator Dr Omar Ahmed. I’ll try to explain.
The title of the film may not mean much outside India. The story is located in a ‘colony’ in the small hill town of McCluskiegunj (or ‘ganj’) in what is now Jharkhand state but which in 1979, when the story is set, was part of Bihar. The colony was originally set up in 1933 by a Calcutta businessman named McCluskie as a settlement for members of the then substantial community of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. The film represents the directorial debut of the celebrated actor Konkona Sen Sharma. She wrote the screenplay herself, based on a story written by her father Mukul Sharma and with assistance by Disha Rindani. Konkona’s mother, the equally celebrated Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen, has a small ‘voice only’ part in the film.
A Death in the Gunj received many nominations for the 2018 Filmfare Awards in India, winning some technical awards and the award for ‘Debutant Director’. The reviews were generally very good and the film played at Toronto and other major festivals. I was surprised that many of the reviews failed to mention that the story is about an Anglo-Indian family. This suggests to me that the drama (and, at times, comedy of ‘manners’) was perhaps not fully appreciated by some reviewers outside India. As Wikipedia helpfully suggests, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ has been used in three different ways. Historically it might refer to those British colonial administrators and soldiers who spent most of their lives in India during the Raj (and earlier) or the original communities of Indians living in the UK. Now, however, it tends to refer specifically to the families formed through mixed marriages whose members tended to form distinct communities in various cities, but especially in Calcutta, during the early 20th century. Anglo-Indians tended to speak English and to identify as Christians. Before 1947 they were mainly employed in administrative jobs but after Independence the communities declined as many families emigrated to the UK and other Anglophone countries.
Anglo-Indians appear in several well-known films. The Hollywood adaptation of John Masters’ novel Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956) stars Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers and was directed by George Cukor. It focused on a railway family (a key Anglo-Indian profession) living close to the partition line in 1947. Satyajit Ray includes an Anglo-Indian character in Mahanagar (The Big City, India 1963). This character, a young woman in Calcutta working for a new company in the early 1950s, enables Ray to explore a range of issues about modernity and prejudice and to contrast this character with the film’s protagonist, a young Bengali housewife attempting to start a working life outside the home. Anglo-Indians in Bengali narratives of the 1950s-70s invariably cue social issues. A Death in the Gunj features mainly English dialogue for the family members with some Hindi and Bengali used with the house servants (who are local tribal people).
A Death in the Gunj focuses on one central family who are hosting a New Year holiday gathering. The parents who live in a house in the Gunj forest are played by Tanuja and Om Puri as the Bakshis. Their guests include their son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and small daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). The other family member is their nephew Shutu (Vikram Massey). The other guest staying in the house is Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). But over the holiday period there are a number of other visitors who also have family in the Gunj. Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) who is a highly disruptive influence (and who seems to spend time away from his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan)) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) is hoping to leave for Australia are both present for many scenes. In this mixed group it soon becomes clear that there is a bully and a character who is bullied, but most of the characters are self-centred in their own ways. There are also clear conflicts in terms of class, gender, age and ethnicity. I’ve seen the film described as a critique of patriarchy, which may indeed be the case, but for me the central reference is to a couple of Satyajit Ray films and no doubt others I know less well.
I was immediately reminded of Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) in which a quartet of young (upper) middle-class young men from Calcutta spend a week in a forest resort area (forcing a caretaker to break rules and open a government bungalow) in Bihar. They insult the local tribal people and then team up with a family group from Calcutta, including two bright and socially confident young women. There is a direct link between this film and A Death in the Gunj in the form of Aparna Sen who has a small role in each film. I also think that Ray’s earlier film Kanchenjungha (1964) and Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) (in which Konkona Sen Sharma stars) offer clues about the scenario of urban sophisticates on holiday or travelling away from Calcutta.
I personally see this film as a critique of Bengali upper middle-class mores worked through by an Anglo-Indian family (i.e. without the same resources or social status). Perhaps they are struggling with the British legacy (why is the story set in 1979?). Shutu is suffering because he is not ‘manly’ and is also a ‘failure’ as a student. Mimi is ‘modern’ but struggling with her sexuality and independence, O.P. (the Om Puri father character) in one of his last roles is playing a character whose time seems to be up and Nandu and Bonnie are struggling to bring up Tani in a modern family set-up. The tribals are treated badly or are ignored by most of the house party except Shutu.
As well as the links back to the films of Ray and her mother, Konkona Sen Sharma also links to the new ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ and to the more radical strains in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. Ranvir Shorey has been a star of both commercial and Hindie films (he was married to Konkona Sen Sharma from 2010-2015). Om Puri straddled both sectors and Konkona herself straddles Bengali cinema, Bollywood and the independents. It’s no surprise that the film shares actors with three of the other films in the HOME season. Tillotama Shome stars in Sir and Kalki Koeklin in Waiting. Vikrant Massey has a supporting role in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Konkona Sen Sharma herself is one of the four leads in that film. The benefits of all these links include a strong sense of ensemble performance with support for the debutant director.
A Death in the Gunj is a remarkable début for Konkona the director and I was completely engaged throughout. The film isn’t a mystery as the death is represented at the beginning of the film, though in a rather oblique way, and then a flashback forms the main part of the narrative presenting the events which led up to the tragedy. I want to praise the cinematography by Sirsha Ray and the background score by Sagar Desai. I was in that forest, feeling the cold of December and experiencing the tensions in the family. The real tragedy is that the film was not released in the UK. It would easily stand up to comparison with any UK/US or European releases. However, I realise that the audiences who enjoyed the films of Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1970s in the UK are now much harder to find. Still, well done to HOME for giving us the chance to see the such a wonderful film.