CultureCinema A Feminist Reading Of A Death In The Gunj: A Tale Of Toxic Masculinity

A Feminist Reading Of A Death In The Gunj: A Tale Of Toxic Masculinity

A Death In The Gunj, a film by a female director talking about loss and the clutches of masculinity in its most brutal and manipulative form.

Those who know me personally, know quite well that I’m not a fangirl type of person. But they also know that I can temporarily lose control and become the crazy fangirl that most celebs are scared of. But it only happens for some people and Konkana Sen Sharma is definitely one of those people. So what did I do when a friend recently asked me if I’d want to watch A Death In The Gunj? Well, I did the obvious! Grimaced with joy and lost control for a couple of minutes.

Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut! How could I miss it? She’s the breath of fresh air that mainstream Indian cinema needs. Nonetheless, I had two reactions when I watched A Death In The Gunj, from two different ideological standpoints. Firstly, from the general movie-enthusiast’s point of view, I was a tad disappointed after watching the film and secondly, from a feminist’s point of view, I was really really glad that someone actually tried to create dialogue about something so relevant in society. Adding to my feminist joy, was the fact that this subject came from a female director.

Also Read: These Are 10 Of The Most Interesting Female Directors In South Asia Right Now!

So what is this aspect of the film that I’m talking about? Toxic masculinity! The storyline of the film reeks of toxic masculinity. The film is based on a short story written by Konkana’s father Mukul Sharma which was based on real life incidents. The story revolves around a family who are visiting McCluksiegunj for the holidays and encounter a series of unfortunate incidents. The ensemble cast comprising of Om Puri, Tanuja, Vikrant Massey, Gulshan Devaiah, Kalki Koechlin, Tilotamma Shome, Jim Sarbh, Arya Sharma and Ranvir Shorey each portrayed their respective characters brilliantly. But it was Vikrant Massey who stole the show.

A Feminist Reading Of A Death In The Gunj: A Tale Of Toxic Masculinity

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Set in the picturesque town of McCluksiegunj in 1979, the story gradually unfolds around Shymal Chatterjee fondly known as Shutu (Vikrant Massey) and his relationship with his extended family around him. The film starts with Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) taking his wife Bonnie (Tilotamma Shome), daughter Tani (Arya Sharma), Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) and his cousin Shutu to their family home in McCluksiegunj. Nandu’s father and mother (Om Puri and Tanuja) welcome their son and his family with love and affection. Gradually as the film unfolds, each of the characters tend to reflect their true colours and we start to see something relatable happening. Why is it relatable? Because the incidents unravelling portray a picture of complexities and intricacies which exist in all families.

The three men in the film have internalised toxic masculinity to such as extent that it flows within their bloodstream

Amidst this web of internal jokes and bygone references what stands out the most is the friendship between Nandu, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian (Jim Sarbh). Some friendships grow and shape themselves as we grow as individuals in the world. These friendships are often characterised with certain traits which then tend to become the identifying markers for them.

The friendship between Nandu, Brian and Vikram is characterised by how they have been socialised and brought up to be ‘men‘ first and foremost and everything else later. A concoction of being able to ‘drink like a sailor‘, be promiscuous and use sexual slangs in conversation is all that makes these three ‘manly‘. As opposed to these three, Shutu is a shy and timid fellow who is studying mathematics but desires to study literature, draws, spends most of his days idly with his niece Tani and secretly cherishes the foxy Mimi (Kalki Koechlin).

A Feminist Reading Of A Death In The Gunj: A Tale Of Toxic Masculinity

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Vikram and Mimi reconcile their romance on every winter break. But this winter things are a little different since Vikram has married a nice ‘gharelu‘ (domesticised) woman who refers to him as ‘huzoor‘ (sir). But both Vikram and Mimi have a ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass‘ kind of attitude and only want to live in the moment. At first, the director lets you believe that Shutu’s dislike for Vikram is due to his proximity to Mimi, but soon a game of Kabbaddi which turns violent, proves that the main reason for Shutu’s dislike of Vikram is his bullying and forced imposition of normative masculinity on Shutu.

Also read: Boyhood And The Dangers Of Toxic Masculinity

This attempt of toughening up a very sensitive Shutu and forcing him to ‘man up‘ is originally started by his cousin Nandu when he forces Shutu to drive Tani back home and thereby trigger nervousness in him, as he hasn’t had driving practice since a long time.

What his family members do not realise is that the death of his father two years back had left Shutu heartbroken and he is grappling to come to terms with it. He seeks the warmth of his father in his old sweaters and his graduation certificates, tokens which are reminders of the man. Death is an incident which leaves unrehearsed imprints on individuals. Speaking from a personal account, I completely relate to the difficulty to grapple with the loss of that individual. Its not the absence of that person that strikes out to you, but it is the sudden reminders of that person which get unleashed from your memory, that make you sit up in your bed in the middle of the night and weep inconsolably.

Things tend to look up when Mimi and Shutu start having a brief fling, and Shutu starts to feel important. But when Tani goes missing and everyone blames Shutu for not taking care of her, Shutu realises his position. His feeling of abandonment is further heightened when he goes to look for Tani with Nandu, falls in a ditch in the forest and is left there by Nandu. Meanwhile the Bakshis celebrating the safe return of Tani, do not even realise Shutu is missing until Mrs Bakshi is preparing to serve dinner. But unlike Tani, Shutu is not that important to the Bakshis, and hence only a servant is sent to search for him, rather than the entire household.

A Feminist Reading Of A Death In The Gunj: A Tale Of Toxic Masculinity

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So where does Shutu’s ground stand? Is he the grown up man who is able to romance his desired woman and ‘feel like a man‘ or is he the timid young man who finds solace in the friendship of an eight year old girl? The complexity of the truth goes much beyond that.

What the film does is initiate a dialogue about death, masculinity and mental health. The film triggered my memories of being bullied by cousins and remembering the laughter, the humiliation and the fingers that were pointed. I’m lucky to have had my mother who constantly inspired me and supported me, making me feel that I can take on anybody in the world, I have her with me. But Shutu didn’t have anyone, did he? Maybe Tani, but Tani also abandoned him. What he actually desired was his father’s warmth, something which would strengthen his existence, ratify it and he wouldn’t have to be bullied by his cousin and his friends who have internalised toxic masculinity within their bloodstream.

The grief of death often makes you weep inconsolably in the middle of the night

Mental illnesses are like a ticking bomb, you might never realise their existence, but they keep gnawing away at your reality. Bullying triggers a lot of bitter emotions within us and the bully does not realise the extent of the damage he or she is doing. But, standing up to your bullies is difficult, and there are people whose pain and grief leads them to choose death, just like Shutu.

On a lighter note, A Death In The Gunj is a must watch because it talks about a lot of important things. From a general movie enthusiast’s point of view, my disappointment lay in the fact that the overall storyline was quite predictable, the death part of the movie was quite easy to figure out. However, if not for the intense storyline, watch the film for the brilliant performances and the breath-taking yet daunting jungles of McCluksiegunj. More power to your story-telling skills Mrs Iyer!

Also Read: 11 Ways How Toxic Masculinity Hurts Men

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  1. A film is not all about simply the story, it’s about the visual presentation of the story along with the technicalities and subtle commentaries. From what you’ve written it looks like you really enjoyed it yet you say it was a disappointment? I don’t completely get that. Yes the story is predictable, in fact from the first appearance of Shuttu itself his fate was clear but it’s the moments that happened in between that makes it a great experience.

  2. People at Feminism in India, please hire an editor. This review would have read a lot better had you had one.

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