Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj (2017) opens
with Gulshan Devaiah’s Nandu and Jim Sarbh’s Brian adjusting something in the
trunk of their blue Ambassador car. We know it’s a corpse when Sarbh says,
“Maybe if we bend the knees and put the body in the foetal position?” Nandu
nods. They arrange the body, after which Nandu covers his nose with the sleeve
of his jacket. The remains have started to reek.
They head back to the car. Nandu starts the engine, with Brian sitting next to him. They have come out of a morgue in Ratu Road, Ranchi, and are heading to Calcutta, which is an eight-hour ride away. The car moves on a stretch of road with a green, mist-laden landscape on either side. As Brian lights two cigarettes and hands one to Nandu, we catch a glimpse of a third person in the backseat: Vikrant Massey sits in the centre of the backseat, body leaning forward and eyes fixed on the road, as if he could speed up the ride by hard staring. From the road he moves his gaze to the back of Nandu’s head, who seems oblivious to his presence.
The film then flashes back to one week earlier, when we see Nandu and his wife Bonnie (Tilottama Shome), their daughter Tani, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) and Nandu’s cousin, Shyamal or Shutu as he is called by everyone (Vikrant Massey) arrive at the house of Nandu’s parents in McCluskieganj, an Anglo-Indian town in Bihar, for a holiday from Calcutta. They are soon joined by the recently married Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Brian, who live nearby. The film is set in 1979, and inspired by a story based on real events by Mukul Sharma, Konkona Sensharma’s father. It’s a tale of a family holiday gone horribly wrong, where the family is shown as a crucible of cruel games and carelessness that pushes Shutu, a sensitive man, to commit suicide. .
We realise that it’s the body of Shutu that was being arranged in the dicky. It’s his ghost we see at the back of the car in the beginning of the film. Shutu was like an apparition to others even when he was alive. He is a pile-on, a poor cousin who is always placed on call. He is not a “proper object”. He is unnoticed but necessary: his name is like a refrain on everyone’s lips to perform banal tasks: shut a car door, fetch a shawl or extra custard, clean the grease that has leaked out of a bottle and soiled a table.
The film subtly presents the contest between male grief and masculinity. We learn that Shutu’s father has died prematurely and he is grieving for him. The taste of ash has not left his mouth yet. He finds his father’s sweater in a cupboard in his aunt’s house and wears that every day. “Grief is wearing a dead person’s dress forever,” writes Victoria Chang in OBIT.
Shutu’s character does not fit the ideal of masculinity, as men are supposed to be stoical and suffer privately for a loss. Lynette S. Moran in her thesis “Gendered Grief: Depictions of Conjugal Bereavement in Contemporary Film” shows how media depicts gender in the context of grief, and its role in the “complex construction of multiple masculinities”. There are several vectors along which masculinity is defined, like appearances, affects, sexualities, behaviours, occupations, agency and dominations.
According to her, “Not all characteristics associated with masculinity are created equal. The ideal, heterosexual, strong male reigns.”
Society expects grief after a death, but it also lays down the rule for appropriate grieving. “Just as expressing too much grief for too long may not conform to societal standards, neither does too little grief for too short a period conform to norms.”
The arrested time of grief is like experiencing death vicariously. Shutu has pressed a moth between the pages of a notebook—the notebook has all his favourite words starting with the letter “E” including “eulogy”. There is a fake séance scene in which Vikram foretells that Shutu would be the first person to die in the room. Mimi force-feeds him a morsel of cake left for a dead young girl at a cemetery. While searching for Tani, who goes missing after Shutu leaves her behind and goes with Mimi for a bike ride, he slips into a ditch in the woods that is meant to capture a wolf.
Vikram is the opposite of Shutu. While Shutu’s affectability is emphasised by his body language, attention to minute details, knowledge of trivia, and unwillingness to summon ghosts during a planchette session because he thinks “it causes them a lot of pain or something”, Vikram is a loudmouth, a churlish bully, who gets away with everything. He is also the receiver of female attention that charges him further. He is married and also has a fling with Mimi—from their body language we know they were lovers before his marriage. Vikram displays his brutish power by picking on Shutu, and making him the butt of his jokes and pranks that often border on cruelty. In a kabaddi game, when it seems Shutu might steal the game from his team, Vikram hits him violently. Shutu is so invisible and dehumanised to others that they hesitate to speak up for him even when he is wronged.
When Bonnie speaks on behalf of him in private to Nandu, calling Vikram a hot-headed, childish guy, and points out that Shutu is still bereft at his father’s loss, Nandu loses his cool and says, “Oh come on! If he had lost his father at 8 or 9, I can understand. But he is a grown man…You know what he needs to do? He needs to toughen up. And he needs to take care of his mother.”
Shutu is flouting gender norms by grieving a bit too long. He has not learnt the rules of ruthless intimacy or realised that the act of severance from the father figure is an absolute necessity to enter into the world of manliness. He is escaping from his father’s death. The fact that he has not gone home to meet his widowed mother and is taking a vacation is a sign of irresponsibility for Nandu. He does not realise Shutu is in escape mode—escape being one of the stages of grief, apart from others like depression and insanity. Despite the veneer of normalcy, his fraught state is revealed through recurrent nightmares, waking in the midnight and cowering against a wall, his body shaking in delirium. He has also failed his exams, which he hides from everyone.
Grieving is normal after the loss of a loved one, but here it is seen as a lack, compounded by his low social standing and a dearth of other “masculine” features. His fragile frame looks ready to break. In one scene Mimi says to Shutu, “You are so pretty. You could be a girl.”
Shutu has rare qualities. He was a brilliant student before his father passed away, excels at chess and kabaddi, and has a love for words. His wink to Tani before he sets out to play kabaddi is self-assured and sexy. It’s because he is grieving that his mental state is tenuous. But rather than being offered care, he is alienated further by his relatives. They are careless, like Tom and Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who “smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their …vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Bonnie and Mimi once joke about a pet tortoise called Haridas that they had forgotten to bring back home years ago. “Tortoises live till they are 100 years old. He will come back one day,” says Nandu’s mom (played by Tanuja) to console Tani who is aghast at her elders’ oversight.
Carelessness in attractive people often makes them seem glamorous. Attractive people also thrive because they are constantly watched. In a scene near the end of the movie, Shutu looks at them through a glass door as they laugh and talk. Their bodies seem bioluminescent. Shutu is like the proverbial moth fatally attracted to the flame and dies in the effort to romance it. After a brief affair and the subsequent rejection by Mimi and Tani, his only friend, he kills himself by snatching a gun from his uncle during shooting practice, his blood splattering Vikram’s face and the family tree.
Death in the Gunj is a rare contemporary Indian movie that looks at a man eclipsed by grief. Indie films and world cinema use quiet moments, attention to detail and landscape and the sequencing of scenes to depict the interiority of the grieving subject. In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, there is a scene in which Julie (played by Juliette Binoche) who has lost her husband in a car accident—is at a café and dips a sugar cube in her cup of coffee. Kieslowski in an interview said that through the close shot of the sugar cube as it slowly absorbs the coffee, he tried to enter the subjectivity of Julie, her immersion in grief and alienation from her surroundings. Indian mainstream films are action driven and don’t have the space or time to explore grief with such intensity. Grief needs slowness. It contracts momentum. Hence mainstream movies often try to show ways to transcend grief. They may depict death or loss, but rarely focus on the process or the “being of grief” that follows. As Moran writes, “Death is common but bereavement remains on the periphery.” Especially in the case of men, as grief means arrested time, a state of ghostliness, and the construction and performance of masculinity is often based on a series of actions and gestures.
Reema Kagti’s Talaash ( 2012) depicts the ghostliness of grief by taking recourse to the genre of horror. Aamir Khan’s Suri plays a tough cop who tries to deal with the sorrow of a dead son by engrossing himself in an accident case that involves doing nightshifts in a red-light area. He is suffering from insomnia and can’t forget that he was sleeping while his son drowned. Post their son’s death, his relationship with his wife Roshini (Rani Mukherji) has also become terse. During his nocturnal sorties, he meets a street walker called Rosie (Kareena Kapoor) who gives him clues to his case.
His wife goes for counselling but tells the doctor it’s her husband who needs his help more. Suri diligently buys medicines for her but does not even brook the fact that he may be in the red. His way of dealing with the loss of his child is to clam up and become incommunicado. Roshini, on the other hand, tries her best to move on. In a desperate attempt she also consults a wacky neighbour who claims to know how to communicate with the dead. Suri is furious when he finds out. Once he interrupts them at a séance and drags Roshini away, but the neighbour shouts after him, “Treat your grief otherwise you’ll get more grief. Ghosts are pulled towards people steeped in grief. They think that we are also like them.”
Haunted by the phantoms in his mind, Suri attracts other spirits roving on the streets. The cognitive violence of not being able to see his son anymore leads him to see things that are not seen by anyone else. The acts of digging up and cremating Rosie’s body are cathartic and emblematic of unearthing buried emotions, releasing ghosts and purging them. Although the film addressed grief, it had to be supported and diluted by various thriller sequences.
He expresses his hurt through songs that are open accusations. Not merely against his lover, but also against the world in which people choose status over love. His grief is the proof of his authenticity.
Indian cinema does not have a dearth of suffering men. One
way to thwart the slowness of grief is to make an aggrieved man embark on a
journey of revenge that is filled with thrill and adventure. Grief acts as a
fuel in films like Gajini and Kaabil—in both these films, grief is compounded
by disability and violence after a tragedy is glorified as heroic. Often,
suffering characters have to leave the space of their life. In Jab we met
(2007), Shahid Kapur’s Aditya wanders aimlessly and randomly boards a train in
a depressed state on the day of his ex-girlfriend’s marriage. Later in the film
Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Geet is also living in seclusion in Shimla after having
been jilted by her lover Traun Arora’s Anshuman. Similarly, in Aap Ki Kasam
(1974) Rajesh Khanna becomes a homeless drifter after his marriage with Mumtaz
is dissolved due to his suspicious nature.
uru Dutt is a heartbreak man. Although he made several comedies, he is best remembered for Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) because of their autobiographical flavour. In both films, he wilfully chooses grief over the world, which to him has become empty of meaning and turned into a “garden of paper flowers” and “a settlement of living corpses”. In both films it is the loss of a lover that triggers his exit from the world and descent into depression and oblivion.
In Pyaasa, he plays a poor poet called Vijay who has faced rejection by his lover and several publishers. Abandoned by his lover (Mala Sinha), who marries high and chooses a loveless marriage over poverty, Vijay sublimates his sorrow into poetry. Through a coincidence, he finds employment in the publishing house of his ex-lover’s husband. Once when he is called to wait on a party of writers in his boss’s house, he breaks into a song marvelling at people whose love is reciprocated. “I asked for the flowers of happiness, but was served a garland of thorns,” he sings while his ex-lover listens on. “I desired for the destination of love but was offered the debris of grief.”
There is no veil or subterfuge and he expresses his hurt through songs that are open accusations. Not merely against his lover, but also against the world in which people choose status over love. His grief is the proof of his authenticity and aliveness. He often stands in the pose of Jesus Christ, who chose death to alleviate the sufferings of mankind.
In his films, personal grief leads to world grief, or what Germans call weltschmerz. He starts to feel and perceive keenly the injustices and evils of the world and mourns for them. In a scene in Pyaasa he goes to a kotha where a dancer in mid-performance is distracted by the sound of her wailing child. When she tries to go to the child, she is shoved by her madam. Seeing this, tears spill from Dutt’s eyes and pour into his wine glass.
Dilip Kumar as the tragedy king of Indian cinema brought dignity and gravitas to his roles in films like Deedar (1951), where he plays a man blinded by lightning after he is separated from his childhood lover. He continues to love and wait for her without seeing her; she is locked and imprinted in his mind as the last image. In this film love and grief are cast as synonyms.
Dilip Kumar forges a dard ka rishta with Ashok Kumar, who is also in love with the same woman and to whom he is betrothed. In this love triangle, Dilip Kumar embodies an affective masculinity defined by a feeling of sacrifice and self-denial towards his rival and worship towards his lover. The cinematic expression of grief in the ’50s and ’60s was often through poetry and sad songs.
One of the most prescriptive lines that concretises the relationship between masculinity and grief : “Mard ko dard nahin hota”.
Sadness never hampers their “manhood” as Bollywood had not
yet found the cult of virility, whose chief characteristics as defined by
Evelyn P. Stevens are “exaggerated aggressiveness and intransigence in
male-to-male interrelationships and arrogance and sexual aggression in
male-to-female relationships”. Vijay Mishra in Bollywood Cinema: Temples of
Desire, calls the dominant genre of Bollywood during this period as
“sentimental melodramatic romance linked to dharmic codes”.
he 1970s and ’80s witnessed the rise of the angry young man often played by Amitabh Bachchan. Fantasy dissolves and reality takes over. These men are victims of an unjust system or a cruel fate, who rage against and subvert the system through their physical prowess. Feelings of loss are translated into emotions of anger, obsession and rebellion that lead to action-heavy plots. They also fight villains to save their sisters, mothers and lovers. These men are often tall, broad-shouldered, with a rough exterior and chest hair peeking out of their shirt fronts. A stark difference from the more organic presence of earlier actors.
In Deewar (1975) the loss and humiliation of his father turns into hidden rage and an absence of moral compass in Vijay who rises from the world of footpaths to skyscrapers, from a boot polisher to a gangster. He has one eye always looking backwards and he treats his success as revenge for his unhappy past. Similarly, in Trishul (1978), the knowledge that he was abandoned by his father spurs Bachchan to become a successful businessman and compete with his father using duplicitous means. In both cases, we have men of action who could not afford to be derailed by grief, or be outside the chain of events. Bachchan also expressed his emotional side in films like Kabhie Kabhie (1976).
After his college sweetheart (Raakhee) marries a man of her parents’ choice, Bachchan’s Amit is heartbroken and joins his father’s construction company and marries a woman (Waheeda Rehman) he does not love. He puts up a front of inscrutability and authority towards his wife. Amit was a poet as a student, a quality that attracted Raakhee. He becomes a man with a cold heart, blind to his cruelty towards his wife. His hurt is not self-contained but leaks out to damage others. It is notable that in Indian cinema, a life steeped in grief is sanctioned for men with a creative mind—from Guru Dutt in Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool to Dilip Kumar in Deedar and Babul to Sunil Dutt in Gumrah and Amitabh Bachchan in Kabhie Kabhie, to mention a few. All these characters weave and reside in a labyrinth of words and images.
In Mard (1985), featuring Amitabh Bachchan who was the epitome of machismo, Indian cinema has one of the most prescriptive lines that concretises the relationship between masculinity and grief : “Mard ko dard nahin hota”. An ideal man does not feel pain.
Mard ko dard nahin ( 2018) by Vasan Bala is a spoof, in which the leading man is literally proof against pain. He suffers from a medical condition called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. He is incapable of feeling pain.
“But even if you consider the term from a broader perspective, it underplays the fact that men who don’t feel pain are superheroes. It’s a bimari really,” Bala says in an interview to Pune Mirror. The character gets hurt but since he cannot feel pain, he does not address it, which leads to harm. Realisation of pain is important for redress.
he recent Kabir Singh (2019) depicts the danger of toxic grief. Shahid Kapur plays a doctor who needs treatment himself. He is the epitome of toxic masculinity based on a lack of care and therefore it is an irony that Kabir is a doctor, a profession whose raison d’etre is care. He is a person with anger management issues, and prone to bouts of rage and violence. His temper and lapses are tolerated because he is a brilliant student.
He falls in love with a junior student Priti (KiaraAdvani), who is so passive that it seems she is auditioning for a silent film. After her parents object to their marriage, Kapur is like a Minotaur unleashed from his maze. His simmering anger has no reason except a sense of entitlement and superiority. He wants to wreak havoc because he cannot deal with his circumstances. Kapur’s character has no demons from the past. He is a misanthrope: he lets everyone down even when everything was not all ruin.
After his separation, he tries to have sex with a girl at knife point, bullies his maid, goes to work high on anger, drugs and alcohol. At a point in the film, his grandmother played by Kamini Kaushal chides his estranged family members and says, “Suffering is very personal. Let him suffer.” Only, his suffering is hell for others as well. He operates on a patient in a drunken state after which he loses his medical licence. This is a razor-thin redemption arc for a character who has otherwise no redeeming qualities.
Kapur’s character has echoes of Salman Khan in Tere Naam ( 2003). Set in Agra, Khan plays a rake called Radhe, whose only occupation is to hang out at a railway station and rag students from his old college. He wears tight jeans and has a toned body. His long hair is parted in the middle which he flicks occasionally to menacing effect. He falls in love with the daughter of a temple priest Nirjara (Bhumika Chala), a demure girl who has recently joined his old college. He is confident she will return his feeling, even though their relationship till that point is based on hierarchy and patronage. Nirjara meekly salutes him every time she sees him. But she shows reserves of inner strength, calls him a lumpen and rejects him. He goes wild.
He picks a fight with his close friend who taunts his masculinity, falls flat on the floor of a temple, cries bitterly and prays for forgetfulness. When these outbursts don’t work, he kidnaps Nirjara and takes her to a rundown godown populated with disused machines and white pigeons. He ties her hands, tapes her mouth, and says, “Look at me. Have you seen me like this earlier? I used to be so happy. Since I started loving you, it feels that my saade saati has started.”
When she tries to escape, he raises an axe to hit her and screams, “Yes, I have brought you here by force, yes I am shouting at you, I am threatening you but it’s because I love you. And I feel that you are made only for me.” He starts sobbing, says he is in pain. She comes to him, cups his face, and says “Please forgive me.”
This is one of the most toxic declarations of love and grief in Indian cinema. His character fits the mould of a psychotic villain or stalker but is overlooked because of a few good deeds. He is also a saviour of hapless students from rival gangs and girls from brothels and molesters. In other words, his penchant for arbitrary violence obscures the fact that his heart is in the right place, as in most of Khan’s movies. Incidentally, this movie was made after his breakup with Aishwarya Rai and he famously said that he has not done any “acting” in this film.
n the 2018 film October, Varun Dhawan’s Dan borrows grief. A trainee at a five star hotel, he is irascible, abhors the menial tasks his training entails like cleaning toilets and doing laundry. He has big dreams, he wants to open his own hotel. Shiuli (Banita Sandhu), who is diligent and efficient, also works in the same hotel. At the New Year’s eve party, Shiuli accidentally slips off the third floor terrace and goes into a coma. The last sentence that she utters before falling is, “Where is Dan?”
Shiuli and Dan are not even close friends. She once gets irritated when he drops a bowl of shiuli flowers that she had collected. Shiuli flowers are shortlived and she is named after it. This acts as the prelude to her fall from the terrace.
Dan starts to visit her regularly in hospital and when he learns about her last sentence he immerses himself completely in taking care of her. He shares grief with her widowed mother, gets medicines and is on attendance daily at the hospital. He has even learned the prescriptions of various illnesses. It is surprising that a man who was temperamental at work practices care with dedication and discipline.
Only after the practice of regular grief, is he able to mature and shoulder responsibilities. Dan’s care is an anti-toxin vis-a-vis Kabir’s poisonous masculinity.
Grief is a thing with feathers, suggests Max Porter in a book of the same name. After the death of a writer’s wife, a crow with a “rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast” arrives at his house. The crow acts as a doctor of grief, caretaker and a counsellor. It is actually the psychic expression of the writer’s grief with which he tussles to be released from despair. The crow leaves once he is cured. What if these Bollywood heroes had visited doctors of grief? Shutu would still be alive.