Well, this was a hard watch! That kind of thoughtless unmeaning hurt that happens all the time every day and there is no way around it. I am so glad I watched this first thing in the morning so I didn’t have to try to sleep with all that unpleasantness in my head! Oh, and it was also a very well-made and acted and filmed and written movie.
It’s also a very lovely movie. The light, the costumes, the greenery, the sets, they are just a feast for the eyes. And besides the specifics of the characters (well, not really “besides”, it is part of what makes them who they are), the setting is fascinating. I had to pause the movie and whisk myself over to wikipedia to learn about it. Back in the 1930s, an Anglo-Indian based in Calcutta bought a small town and advertised it specifically to the Anglo-Indian community. The town never became particularly large, but it was popular in the 30s and 40s before beginning to die off in the 50s. So here we have this vacation town in the middle of nowhere, a place for folks to go and hide away as the world moved on past them. And a place for people who don’t quite fit, too Indian to go back to England and too British to feel happy in the rest of India. The setting alone, filmed with love for these people and this place, makes the movie worth watching.
I should say, it is filmed with love for these people but also an awareness of their flaws. There’s a particular genre of period film that I think of as “I love you Mom and Dad” films. The filmmakers reach a certain age and are suddenly fascinated by their parents, by their parents as they saw them when they were young, magical powerful creatures with mysterious lives. And they forget that point of rebellion in young adulthood when they learned to see their parents as people who made mistakes.
The problem with these movies is that you can’t treat characters and a world like it is a magical place you only know as a child, like it has no real problems or complexities or anything old and ugly and wrong. But this movie doesn’t fall into that trap. It doesn’t let nostalgia sugarcoat the past, or sugarcoat who these people were in the past. It was an easier life for them, for these particular people in this particular class, but it wasn’t a life they earned, and it came with its own problems. Young marriages with lots of freedom lead to immature parents, lots of money and free time to enjoy it leads to thinking enjoyment is the most important thing in life, the ability to live as you have always lived means living in the past. Basically, troubles are put on this earth to make us better people. In this particular point in time when these people had almost no troubles, they were terrible people and there wasn’t much in the world that would force them to be better. It’s refreshing after all the “historical” films we usually get that pretend the past was a world in which there was no racism, no unfairness, no cowardice or violence or anything else bad. And that somehow the adults back then were “grown-ups”, were better and stronger and older than we are now.
And so this is a movie about a past time and a past place and a past people who are not as wonderful and perfect as they appear on the surface. But it is a lovely surface.
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In 1978 at Christmas, a young family is going back to visit Grandma Tanuja and Grandpa Om Puri in their little cottage in the Anglo-Indian enclave. They live a life that combines India and England, saris and British mustaches and guns, lace table clothes and Christmas cakes. Their son Gulshan Devaiah and his wife Tillotama Shome are young and free-thinking from Calcutta with one daughter. They had a young love marriage and it seems like they might have grown up together in the same town, at least his parents know childhood stories of her and her friend. They are bringing along her childhood best friend Kalki Koechlin, and also Gulshan’s cousin Vikrant Massay. At the house they are visited by the neighbors, confident local top man Ranvir Shorey and his best friend Jim Sarbh.
Twisted in these characters is the Anglo-Indian past. Kalki is the most visibly white, Tanuja late in the film references Kalki having a white mother and she struggles late in the film to achieve Indian cooking techniques. She is in love with Ranvir, or maybe in the confident Indian manhood he represents, but he marries the perfect folk-singing Indian wife instead of her. She doesn’t fit anywhere. Jim Sarbh’s character is named “Brian” and is trying to get a job overseas in Australia, maybe taking his parents away with him there. Tanuja and Om Puri are happy in their little cottage out of time, but their son is pushing them to move back to Calcutta. The Indian characters are becoming more Indian, the Anglo-Indians are going away, and there is Kalki caught in the middle of all of this, wanting to be Indian but not allowed, not knowing how to cook the right foods, sing the right songs, even wear a sari the right way.
And thrown into this whole stew of ugly undercurrents, Jim Sarbh trying to leave the country, Gulshan’s parents trying to hold on to a past as long as possible, Gulshan and Tillotama struggling to still feel their young age despite their 8 year old daughter, Ranvir Shorey fighting the reality of his marriage and his own changing status, Kalki fighting her broken heart and increasing feeling of disconnect from her country and her identity, is innocent little Vikrant Massay. 23 years old, just failed his college exams, his father newly dead, fleeing from that reality to this vacation in the hopes of finding something to make sense of his life. He is looking to these people to be strong and wise and better than him, because they are older than him and they seem like they know what they are doing. And when they fail him, it breaks his heart, makes him think the problem is with him, not them, that they must have been wise enough to see he was not worth saving.
The thing with family is, they have to be there for you even when they don’t want to. Often that is a wonderful thing. And when it is treated as a horrible thing, it is usually from the perspective of those forced to spend time with people they don’t like. But worse than that is when you are the person that knows no one likes them and yet you are forced to stay in a room with people who don’t want you there. Poor Vikrant Massay is trapped in a small house with many people who don’t like him or want him there for 7 terrible days.
The only truly terrible character is Ranvir Shorey (interesting that Konkona gave her husband the most unlikable role). Towards the end of the film it is mentioned that he comes from local wealth, he is not part of this “new” Anglo-Indian community, but the older leaders of society with family jewels and traditions. He knows who he is in this place at this time, and at all other places and all other times. And he casually hurts everyone around him. He dismisses his new wife, gives the impression that she is a very young village girl with no graces, and keeps her away from society. And then we meet her, and she is delightful and charming, there is no reason for him to hide her away and insult her besides pure spite and need to make others look bad in order to make him look better. Jim Sarbh, his friend, is lost in his life and his world and Ranvir is happy to have him as a happy acolyte, always there to make him look better. Ranvir delights in using Gulshan in the same way, making him feel like a hopeless boring married man so Ranvir can feel like he is more exciting and dangerous than him. And Kalki gets the worst of it, a woman he can use to massage his ego and get sexual enjoyment, and then dismiss and make her feel as if she is “just” a white woman when he wants to avoid the complications she brings.
Vikrant is unknowingly caught between Ranvir and Kalki and is hurt by both. Ranvir torments him first, because he is younger and innocent and easy to torment. Vikrant brings this on himself that first night, they are joking about seances and he sincerely says that he does not want to call up the dead. Ranvir immediately jumps on his sincerity, his visible reactions to the little barbs that the group lives with. Vikrant is hurt that night when Ranvir arranges for the fake seance to indicate that Vikrant will die. When Kalki is hurt by Ranvir, she seeks out Vikrant for the same reasons. She knows he is kind, and has a crush on her, is watching her. So she uses him, sleeps with him and flirts with him to restore her ego and gain Ranvir’s attention. Until she is done with him also and casts him aside.
No one else cares enough about Vikrant to consciously even want to hurt him. But they can still do it unconsciously. Gulshan cares about him, maybe the most of everyone there. Late in the film, we see him hear Vikrant crying at night and seek him out and comfort him. But when he offers to teach Vikrant to drive, a kindly meant gesture, he starts treating him harshly in reflection of how his father taught him. It has nothing to do with Vikrant, it is Gulshan working through his own issues, but it still hurts him. Later when Tillotama tries to speak up for Vikrant, with that clarity of vision that can come from in-laws coming intoa new family, Gulshan turns her defense of Vikrant into an indictment of himself, pointing out that they were married at 23, the age she says Vikrant is “still a boy”. Instead of hearing her concerns, he only hears his own doubts about his fitness to be the head of a household, living alone in Calcutta, at such a young age. And later Tillotama herself will unconsciously hurt Vikrant, when her daughter goes missing after Vikrant is the last to see her, she blames Vikrant for being unaware and unable.
Tanuja cares about Vikrant also, but second hand through caring about her sister, rather than talking to Vikrant directly she badgers him to call his mother and go home, ultimately putting more pressure on him instead of less. Tanuja has her own worries, trying to take care of her rapidly deteriorating husband Om Puri, she thinks about Vikrant and then forgets him. That is what hurts the most, everyone keeps forgetting him. At gatherings, he is left out of the conversation, off to the side, and no one makes an effort to bring him back in. Until he is lost outside for hours, tracked down by a servant, only to return home and find that everyone is celebrating, not just not missing him but happier without him.
But let me go back to Kalki for a moment. Because she is the most interesting character in terms of how Indian society is shaken and changing at this moment. In terms of what she actually does, she is a typical “white woman” character. Sexually loose, sleeping first with a married man and then with a young man. And seeming not to care about either of them mere days later. She breaks the rules of Indian society, particularly the sexual rules, she is incapable of doing the work of a “real” woman, can’t even cook, and she respects nothing, not even cake left on a grave in the cemetery that she steals and eats. But this film doesn’t stop at what she does, it also looks at WHY she does it. She sleeps with Ranvir because she is in love with him, or at least infatuated with him, and he encourages her. He seeks her out, not the other way around. And then he breaks her heart, treats her like the “white woman” stereotype, just sex and then forgotten. Tanuja dismisses her the same way, whispering about her mother who was always after men like white woman always do, and her best friend Tillotama twists the knife by pointing out she has no idea how to cook Indian food. It is only then, when she has been thoroughly “othered” and minimized, that she believes them, believes that all she has to offer is sex, and gives that to Vikrant in order to make an ally of the other person who seems as “othered” in this world as she is. The moment that tells that whole story to me is when Kalki gets up after having had sex with him a second time, and immediately shuts down, barely speaks to him and asks to go home. She knows she has proved herself to be what Ranvir treated her as, just sex. She isn’t the sexy fantasy white woman who can laugh off a casual sexual encounter, she is a real person who feels shame and pain for using another person in this way.
If you look at it from that direction, you could even say that Vikrant, the young fragile future of India, is paying the price for the games the powerful older India plays with the “outsiders” in their country, caught between them. Kalki is hurt and turns around and hurts the only other person more powerless than herself. And in the end, Vikrant manages to hurt them all, the only way he can.
This whole film is building to a reveal. We see in the opening Jim Sarbh and Gulshan looking down into the trunk of a car at a body and talking about how to fit it in. They get back into the car and we see Vikrant in the backseat watching them as they drive off. And then we flash back a week. We know someone will die, it was in the opening scene and it is in the title, the question is who. Arya seems like a likely candidate, she runs away and is lost late at night. Earlier when Kalki was spinning out, it seemed possible she would harm herself. Even Om Puri, he has a gun and his wife is trying to hide the bullets from him, he is aging and resists admitting he has to leave his house, very common suicide situation. In the final sequence, Vikrant asks to hold Om’s gun, and then turns it on him. The rest of the group sees from a distance and Ranvir (who has brought his own new handgun to show off) comes towards him. Vikrant could kill Om, or Ranvir. Or Ranvir could shoot him. And then, finally, Vikrant kills himself. That was the death, that was what was happening during this whole week, Vikrant being brought to a point where suicide seemed the answer.
But in a larger sense it is not just Vikrant who is dying, but this whole world. The casual innocence of Tillotama and Gulshan’s careless marriage, Ranvir’s confidence in himself as a man, Kalki’s fragile place in the world, Tanuja and Om Puri’s life in their cottage, it is all coming to an end. It is the “Gunj” itself that is dying.