As someone who follows films very closely for the purpose of his work, I can tell you that there are few films which affect you in a way, that they change you as a person. And there are those where you fall in love with the enigma of a period and its characters to such an extent, that they are unable to shake off long after you've seen the movie and written about it.
One such movie for me from 2017 has been Konkona Sen Sharma's A Death In The Gunj. The detailed production design, Sagar Desai's terrific background score and the fantastic ensemble - the movie transported me to McCluskieganj, 1979. Since then, I've mulled over the film and its different characters and I was fascinated by the fact that the story could have had so many different endings. And it would still be as devastating.
SPOILERS AHEAD: I won't reveal the actual ending, but major plot points have been mentioned. Continue reading only if you've watched the movie.
The ending was unexpected. It hits you hard and haunts you for a long time. It was perfect, but yet, I decided to stretch the scope of the climax by imagining the different possibilities. I figured it was an interesting creative exercise, and I'm mildly surprised with what I have. Here are 8 possible alternate endings for the movie, for the sheer joy of story-telling.
1. A young girl leaves the house, never to return again.
Shutu and Mimi come back from their date on Vikram's motorcycle. As Shutu and Mimi enter the house, they hear that Tani is nowhere to be found. Both Nandu and Bonnie are cursing Shutu for being selfish enough to leave her alone, when he's spent every other day of the vacation watching over her. Some part of that anger is also coming from their own guilt. Everyone goes out to look for Tani, assuming she hasn't gotten far on foot.
The search continues for 24 hours, and the tension keeps building. Everyone becomes confrontational. That's when the man-servant finds Tani inside a wolf-trap. She looks unconscious. He calls Nandu and Shutu to help him descend into the trap with the help of a rope. As he turns her face, his palms are bloodied. She isn't breathing, and it appears that she hit her head on the rock when she fell into the pit. She might have only been unconscious at first, but then kept on losing blood and died a slow, painful death. Nandu freezes and the first thing his mind goes to, is how will he tell Bonnie. He just continues to stare at his 8-year-old's corpse.
2. Shutu makes his final escape.
Tani has gone missing, and Shutu can't stop blaming himself for abandoning her. He accompanies Nandu, as they go looking for Tani into the wild. Whilst he's looking for her he falls into a pit, meant to be a wolf-trap. It takes him a second to realise that for the very first time, he's absolutely cut-off from the world. The momentary realisation is followed by cries of help, which quickly escalates to desperate shrieks. But Nandu is so frantically caught up in his search for his daughter, he doesn't hear Shutu's cry for help. After more than an hour goes by, Shutu finally hears footsteps approaching the pit. 'DADA! DADA!', his shrieks get louder for Nandu, and he finally sees.
It's a wolf looking down at him. In one instant, Shutu realises that his family does not care enough to even realise that he's missing. His family had abandoned him, just like his father had. And now a wolf would eat him. His life was flashing in front of his eyes, as he begins severely palpitating. And for a second he senses an escape. He wishes his heart to stop beating, and it obeys. The misery called life is finally over.
3. The Mexican standoff in Bihar
It's the last day of the vacation, and as promised Uncle Bakshi and Vikram are going to take part in some target practice. Vikram reaches the bungalow with his pistol, as he sees Uncle Bakshi dutifully cleaning his vintage rifle. The mood is upbeat, as Vikram goes about his usual banter with Nandu, and then suddenly his attention shifts to Shutu who is forcing the gun out of Uncle's hands. Vikram rushes to the two who are still struggling over the rifle, and he takes out his pistol and points it at Shutu.
Vikram knows how unpredictable the boy is, and his reasoning behind pointing the pistol is that he is apprehensive Shutu might shoot uncle in the process. As Shutu finally forces the rifle out of the old man's hands, he accidentally shoots a round in the air. Startled by the sound, Vikram shoots Shutu straight in the head. This is such an unfortunate waste of life, but the boy brought it upon himself. The family momentarily expresses grief, and then in no time shoves his corpse in the back of a car. It needs to be taken care of, and life needs to go on.
4. A mother is consumed by her own guilt.
There is a commotion in the house. Bonnie, who usually spends her evenings sitting on the porch, sipping tea and taking part in animated conversation, is frantically searching the house. Tani is missing and as Bonnie sits helplessly in the living room waiting for a miracle, a visibly drunk Uncle Bakshi comforts her by saying the tortoise will come back. Bonnie puts Uncle's unmindfulness aside and her mind rushes towards what must have happened to her only daughter in the wild. What if she meets a stranger? Or an animal attacks her? How could she have blindly trusted Shutu to be her errand boy and take care of Tani? Why hadn't she been more responsible and known her daughter's whereabouts at all times? Every second was becoming unbearable as the guilt of her being responsible for her daughter's cruel fate was eating her from the inside.
And then there was that familiar voice. Tani was talking about her eventful day as she walked into the house, with Vikram. Vikram had found Tani around the crack of dawn, being walked back home by their neighbour after she was spotted in the woods. As the little girl rushes to the bedroom to greet her mother, she finds her hanging by the ceiling fan.
5. Mimi's rides out to meet her fate.
Mimi doesn't hate Vikram's wife. She just hates the fact that he has a wife. Somewhere, she's sad that that could've been her with him, but mostly it's jealousy and anger. Mimi and Vikram used to be perfect together - impulsive, volatile and wild in very similar ways. Then how did he choose to settle down with such a boring woman? Why didn't he choose her? She has this feeling crawling within her - to kill them both. How could they pretend to be so happy in front of her? How could he not let her sit on his bike? That was it. She could trash his bike, probably one of the few things he loves more than himself. The next she sees him when he comes on the day of target practice. She quietly sneaks his bike away. Moments later, a loud collision startles everyone even before a round has fired. As they rush to the place the sound came from, they find Mimi's lifeless body. She's unrecognisable with her head's split open in the aftermath of the accident.
6. Shutu loses his 'other mother.'
The last few days have been tough. Shutu has finally realised his place in the family, especially after no one came looking for him in the pit. How can a family be so distant? His only salvation was Mimi, and even she dismissed their intimacy as nothing serious. And then as he's making plans to leave the place, Shutu is sure about not wanting to go back home. It only reminds him more about his father's passing. And just then Anupama aunty comes to remind him about how he hasn't called his mother since getting there.
Shutu tries to drown out her voice in her head, but she just won't stop. What has Shutu done to deserve this? Why is he always the one nagged, picked on, humiliated, overlooked? She even confronts Shutu about him failing his M.Sc exams. His head is starting to hurt, and just like that Shutu holds his aunt by her head and bangs it on a nearby wall. As the aunt lays dead on the floor, Shutu sits beside her, shivers while trying to comprehend what he just did.
7. Shutu finds his hands covered in innocent blood.
Uncle Bakshi is looking forward to showing off his vintage rifle and its long range compared to Vikram's pistol. Evidently, the rifle's not been fired for really long. And as he takes it out on the field, Shutu approaches him. He insists on the fact that he wants to *feel* the rifle in his hands, and when Uncle Bakshi refuses to let him hold the loaded rifle, Shutu gets into a struggle with him. Tani realising Shutu's anger runs to calm him down and pull him away from Uncle Bakshi, and in the struggle the rifle goes off. Tani falls to the ground, and Shutu collapses to the ground. Everyone rushes towards Tani to find her bleeding from her chest. When did this vacation turn into a nightmare? No one knows.
8. A wife struggles to accept her husband's past.
Poornima is the star for the Bakshi family during the New Year's Eve celebration. But she isn't enjoying the attention, especially when a drunk Mimi is continuously flirting with her husband in front of everyone. Being conditioned to be subservient to the husband, she tries to ignore her husband's ex-flame. But somewhere, she isn't entirely convinced about the affair between Mimi and her husband being a thing of the past. She quietly digests it, since that's what the women from her town do. And the night goes on, and as her drunk husband indulges Mimi more and more, her belief in him begins to waiver.
The tipping point of the evening comes in the form of when she sees Mimi make her way behind a tree and there is a sound of kissing and giggling. She reaches for her husband's jacket that's lying on the sofa, and grabs the pistol inside it. She takes it outdoors. She can see her husband will never be fully hers, and for a moment she considers taking her life. But no, that will be too easy for him. She points at the figure behind the tree and shoots at it. She hears her husband's scream, but it is coming from behind her. She looks back to see Vikram running towards her, while Shutu comes out from behind the tree, holding his bleeding mid-riff. Mimi is going berserk. Poornima realises the horror of her actions, as her world shatters with a single bullet.
That's the beauty of Konkona Sen Sharma's film, and Mukul Sharma's vibrant short story. It gives us such a wide array of characters with their own peculiarities, that the film's ending can be interpreted in many different ways. Three cheers for A Death In the Gunj!