A Death in the Gunj: Bollywood’s step towards the positive portrayal of mental illnesses.

Shutu, a 23-year old is that member of a family who nobody notices. Shutu is someone who is asked to make a drink when everyone else is busy drinking. He is someone who gets selected last while making teams for any game. He is always talked over, ignored, and secluded. He is quiet, reclusive, and goes easily unnoticed. Konkana Sen Sharma’s ‘A Death in the Gunj’ revolves around the dynamics of an unusual and a borderline deranged family, and the character of Shutu.

Bollywood’s portrayal of mental illnesses has seen its ups and downs. Where movies like 15 Park Avenue, Black, Woh Lamhe, and Dear Zindagi, manage to integrate the concept of mental health well, on the other spectrum, there are movies that contain poor depictions of mental illness include Anjana Anjani, Ashiqui 2, and Hansee toh Phasee. In the year 2017, mental health has been in much discussion in the entertainment industry. In the mainstream media, actress Deepika Padukone recently came out with her struggle with depression, which sparked a conversation about accepting mental health without any stigma or taboo. She also launched the ‘Live, Laugh, Love' foundation to help support mental health concept. There was also the suicide case of young boy, Arun Bharadwaj, who recorded a video on how to commit suicide before jumping off the Mumbai’s Taj Land’s end building. This incident, again, got mainstream celebrities and comedians to talk about mental health conditions in the country. All these incidences make one hope that the Indian film industry do justice to the subject. And Ms. Sen Sharma’s movie ‘A Death in the Gunj’ does just that.

Hiding dead moths in books, having a list of favourite words staring with the letter ‘E’, drawing frogs over pages in a diary, daydreaming, being able to wholly connect with only the child of the family, burying a dead ant with a proper ritual are all the characteristics that someone as innocent, introverted, and sensitive as Shutu would have. Going through a deep trauma caused by the death of his father, and staying away from his home with his aunt, Shutu fails his exams despite being otherwise brilliant. He’s shown to always be excluded from all the happenings around him, all the while hiding the inner turmoil he’s going through from everyone else. There is also the maternal figure, Shutu’s aunt, who although is concerned about his wellbeing and expresses her concerns to his mother in letters, is shown to never actually do anything about it herself. What makes the movie so simple and realistic is being able to connect with the reclusive, and innocent character of Shutu, as well as the bullying, hotheaded characters of his cousins.

The tone of the film with regards to the character of Shutu deals with emotional abuse, ignorance, bullying, self-esteem issues, depression, trauma, and suicide. He’s a scapegoat who is constantly bullied by his cousins, is the punching bag of all the jokes, pranks, and taunts of the family, is facing an extreme personal trauma but is expected to stick a smile on his face and participate, his pain is ignored and dusted under the rug as it is too heavy for a breezy family vacation filled with cigarettes, alcohol, and play. Shutu is that part of almost every family, whose suffering can get too real to deal with, and hence, is shoved under the rug. Or the person who is asked to ‘deal with it’ or ‘suck it up’ and ‘not whine’. There are different reasons as to why a child becomes a scapegoat of the family; he is probably extremely vulnerable and does not act out no matter how harsh the behaviour towards him is. Scapegoating is a common problem seen in dysfunctional families. And dysfunctional family environments are one of the leading causes of suicide in India.

Suicide rates have gone up. According to the World Health Organisation estimation, about 170,000 deaths in India are due to suicide. Prof Vikram Patel, PhD et. al. aimed to quantify suicide mortality in their study, in which they found that 40% of deaths in men, and 56% of deaths in women occurred between the ages of 15-29 years. Mental health is still a topic of stigma in the country, it is a high time we start a informed conversation about the topic. It is in this context that ‘A Death in the Gunj’  shows just how important it is to try to understand what someone else is grappling with when they face mental health issues. How people should really listen to someone’s problems, and that empathetic listening can help us gain a perspective of all the problems that someone else is going through. A few points to keep in mind when talking to someone are, first, you have to be non-judgemental. If the person going through something deeply personal and traumatic, even a slight judgement can make the person not want to talk about it anymore, to anyone. It also shows how families need to get comfortable with talking about things that matter, things that not always are a ‘happy’ topic of discussion and not be afraid to do something about it. And it shows how easy it is to ignore someone’s problems and lock them up in some dark corner where it does not affect the ‘happiness’ of anyone else. Shutu’s story resonates with a lot of youth in our country who suffer deeply but are too scared to seek help. ’A Death in the Gunj’ brings out the story of Shutu beautifully, and without any unnecessary drama which makes you think hard about the conditions around you long after it ends.

Archa Joshi