It’s not often one catches a good movie at the local multiplex where I live. So it was a treat to watch ‘A Death in the Gunj’, directed by Konkona Sen-Sharma. The script is based on a short story written by her father Mukul Sharma, who dazzled us all, at least in Calcutta, in the 1980s with his creative skills as a writer, actor (Paroma) and intellectual. He was the centre of attraction at parties that rocked and rolled late into the night and often the early hours of the next morning. Along with Pritish Nandy, he would be where the action was.
Konkona has clearly inherited his art of effortless story-telling and her mother, Aparna Sen’s talent of turning every day stories into memorable films – ’36, Chowringhee Lane’ was the first, followed by ‘Paroma’. Konkona’s ‘A Death in the Gunj’ belongs in the same league. It’s a pity the audience at the 8 pm screening added up to a measly two, my companion and I. ‘Wonder Woman’, which was being screened in the adjacent hall, had a full house.
A layered story of human relationships and personalities, ‘A Death in the Gunj’ unfolds in McCluskieganj, popularly known as ‘The Gunj’ among those who found ‘Little England’ where Anglo-Indians lived in quaint cottages charming. It was the preferred destination for a weekend away from Calcutta for the Anglicised young. Others went for a vacation in ‘The Gunj’ where affluent Bengalis had acquired a second home or settled after retirement.
It would be wrong to retell the story here. If you are curious, go watch the film. But apart from telling us that there’s a bit of ‘Shutu’ in each of us – some are able to overcome the loneliness of being, others aren’t – the film is a grim reminder of what we have done to our once pristine forests which have disappeared along with cultural markers that defined a certain way of living, not of thebabalog but the Adivasis.
The larger leitmotif of ‘A Death in the Gunj’ reminds me of another film, Satyajit Ray’s ‘Days and Nights of the Forest’, based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s eponymous Bengali novel, Aranyer Din Raatri. Years ago, a television producer had commissioned me to interview Sunil Gangopadhyay, the finest writer of Bengali prose who was also considered by many to be the best contemporary poet. That was almost a decade before Sunil passed away.
The interview was scheduled for a monsoon afternoon. It had been raining heavily since the previous evening and Kolkata had decided to take a day off as streets and lanes rapidly disappeared under water. There’s no way he will come to the studio in this weather, we might as well call it off, I told the producer. But Sunil did come and he wasn’t late either. We chatted for a while, had coffee, and then settled down for the interview. I found Sunil to be a great raconteur and an effortless communicator who, once he warmed up, held me spellbound with his masterful ability to recall events and make them come alive without so much as shifting in his chair.
What was equally remarkable was his humility. He was the story-teller, not the story. It was while talking about his early years that he mentioned how he and his friends, including Shakti
Chattopadhyay, all of them poets, would travel deep into rural Bengal and Bihar, explore forests and lead a Bohemian life that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than the shallow mystical flower power of the times; it was intense and, to an extent, daringly reckless – you pushed yourself to the brink and then pulled back. For Sunil, Shakti and others, it was their most creative years which they spent rescuing Bengali prose and poetry from sloganeers and pamphleteers masquerading as writers.
There was nothing dark and desolate about what they wrote; there was passion and ebullience. Even unrequited love was to be celebrated and treasured, not mourned over. One such ‘trip’ that’s the word Sunil used was to Dhalbhumgarh. “Four of us decided we should get out of Kolkata, we needed a breath of fresh air. So we just got into a train at Howrah station. We had not even purchased tickets for the journey… the idea was to get off at a place that would catch our imagination.”
As Dhalbhumgarh approached, they were enchanted by the dense shaal forest shimmering in the early autumn morning light and they decided to get off at the tiny station. The next few days were a journey of discovery for Sunil, an exploration of the way we who live in cities look at forests and their tribal dwellers, and the way they look at us. The mahua-soaked story of that ‘trip’ appeared in a puja baarshiki (annual literary magazines published during Durga Puja) in 1967 as Aranyer Din Raatri.
“One day, I think it was Ashtami, I received a call. The person at the other end had a deep, baritone voice and introduced himself as Satyajit Ray,” Sunil said, “I couldn’t believe myself. Satyajit Ray? Calling me?” The master filmmaker told Sunil that he had just finished reading Aranyer Din Raatri and wanted to make a film based on the novel. Could he get the rights? Sunil, of course, said yes. The eponymous film was released in 1969 and was a big hit, marking Ray’s shift to contemporary issues and 1960s Bengali middle class angst.
Like many other films directed by Ray, Aranyer Din Raatri (or Days and Nights of the Forest, as it was titled for foreign audience) featured Soumitra Chatterjee, Rabi Ghosh and Aparna Sen. Pahari Sanyal and Kaberi Bose were there too. The surprise inclusions were Samit Bhanja and Subhendu Chatterjee. And the biggest surprise was the inclusion of Simi Garewal who played the role of a seductive young tribal woman, Duli, lisping in half-Bengali, half-Santhali, her large kohl-lined eyes as intoxicating as the heady smell of mahua even before it has been dried and fermented.
Ray elevated Sunil’s portrayal of the eternal conflict between man and nature and the clash of two worlds, one in which we live and the other inhabited by tribals, to cinematic brilliance. Next year, in 1970, Ray produced a second film based on a novel written by Sunil. Pratidwandi was an urban story, in sharp contrast to Aranyer Din Raatri.
That afternoon, after the interview was over and we were smoking cigarettes over coffee, Sunil reverted to Aranyer Din Raatri. “You know, I felt honoured by Ray deciding to make a film based on my novel. But I do wish he had consulted me on the script. When I saw the film, it was a lot different from my book,” he told me. Which is true. If you read the book and then watch the film, the differences become stark. But Ray would argue that he was making a film while Sunil was writing a novel. The medium forced the changes.
Meanwhile, Dhalbhumgarh has changed, as has all of Chhota Nagpur as the plateau was called in the past. Jharkhand is only part of the region symbolised by Dhalbhumgarh in Aranyer Din Raatri. The dense shaal forests have disappeared, thanks to the timber mafia, and the rude intrusion of ‘urbanisation’ has changed the lives of forest dwellers the Santhals, the Mundas, the Bhumij, the Lodhas and the Sabars forever. You won’t find Dulis dancing to the throbbing beat of madol or tribals happily high onmahua singing Tusu songs.
When we were growing up in Jamshedpur, we would often go for school picnics to nearby jungles beyond Subarnarekha or Domohoni where Subarnarekha meets Karkai, redolent with the smell of shaal, mahua and tendu. Those forests have been plundered by dikus with the help of tribal collaborators. The animals are gone, too. All this happened many years ago; the loot is being talked of now. In the name of ‘development’ and ’empowerment’, we have destroyed the culture of the forest, the days and nights of carefree existence of an entire people now belong to the distant past.