Resthouses in the forest, dak bungalows, sleepy railway stations and deserted platforms have always held a special place in our imagination. They have existed in that twilight zone of magic, mystery and reality, between then, now and maybe. They have bred lore and culinary classics (for instance, the Dak Bangla chicken dish) as well as inspired storytellers with a yen for the supernatural, mystery and murder.
Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj is set in one such place. The opening title at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27) is based on a short story by the director’s father, the science fiction writer and journalist Mukul Sharma. Starring Kalki Koechlin, Ranvir Shorey, Gulshan Devaiah, Vikrant Massey, Tanuja and Jim Sarbh, the 1979-set drama is set in McCluskieganj, a former Anglo-Indian settlement in Jharkhand. A family outing takes an unexpected turn with the disappearance and death of one of the guests. “But this is not an Agatha Christie kind of whodunnit,” said Mukul Sharma, who wrote Death in McCluskie Gunj two decades ago.
While Sensharma says her film is a coming of age drama, Sharma says his story was a science fiction fantasy. “My story was just about the incident that actually took place and leaves it at that,” he told Scroll.in. “I did not think it was necessary to explore the incident beyond that. Her film, from what I know, is more about the circumstances leading to the death. It is more like a slice of life drama, in a way Satyajit Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri was told.”
Sharma's short story is a fictionalised retelling of an incident revolving around a séance that took place at his parents’ house in McCluskieganj sometime in the 1980s. “The town did not have roads then,” Sharma recalled. “It was just the kind of place where after a few drinks, everyone was in the mood for mischief. And holding a séance was exactly the kind of thing one was expected to do.” Glimpses of that event also feature in the trailer of Death in the Gunj.
In Sharma's story, the spirit is asked during the séance if anyone in the room will die soon. One of the characters at the table dies a year later – and this is where the narrative takes a leap from the real into the metaphysical. “We are all curious about death and afterlife, and it is this obsession with death that makes people carry out these experiments,” Sharma said.
The séance, in which a moving object was supposed to signal the presence of spirits, was popular in the years when family vacations to sleepy destinations without internet or television meant long evening hours of doing nothing. “We were all there, so was Konkona and her mother, my former wife,” said Sharma, who was married to filmmaker Aparna Sen. “Nobody believed in ghosts and spirits, we just got our kicks from making the pencil move.”
Many of the people who participated in the séance that Sharma fictionalised are still alive, as are the family members of the one guest who did not make it. “That makes it extremely tricky for Konkona, they may not like it,” said Sharma, who has wrapped up two screenplays with Vishal Bhardwaj, for whom he had previously written Ek Thi Daayan (2013).
There is another important departure from the original story. While the setting plays an important part in the movie’s title and screenplay, geographical location is not significant in Sharma’s story. “Since my story was in the realm of science fiction fantasy, it was more about a setting where anything could happen, and it did,” he said.