‘Mukti Bhawan’ is this week’s freshest surprise. Young director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s take on life and death is a pleasant break from the bandwagon of foreign-funded Indie movies that harp on the very old wine of spirituality in various new bottles. What does that mean? Simply this – you can go watch the movie as ‘wholesome family entertainment’ or ‘thought provoking cinema’ – it won’t hurt either ways. 25 year old Bhutiani certainly deserves the many accolades gathered on the way, and given that this was his first full-length feature, he probably has miles to go.
Let’s invert the usual structure of a review and start with the director rather than the film. Bhutiani grew up as a self-styled ‘film junkie’ in a Mussoorie boarding school, watching an average of 3 films per day. By 16, he was clear that he would be a director. Unsurprisingly, ‘Kush’, his graduation film from the New York School of Visual Arts, made it to the Academy Awards nomination list. He made another short thereafter while hopping international festivals, and the script for ‘Mukti Bhawan’ was one of the 10 projects out of 400 entries selected by the Venice Biennale School for completion. Winning the funds does not make a film. Bhutiani roped in an excellent unit and an eclectic star cast to make his film a good example of team work. David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney are competent cinematographers, who never make you feel that a ‘firang’ is at it. Varanasi is painted as peaceful, crowded, serene, and mundane, even the typical sequences of the aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat and boat ride on the Ganga feel homely rather than picturesque. Tajdar Junaid’s music deserves special mention as it melts in very well. The jewel among the unit (barring the writer-director) is probably dialogue writer Asad Hussain, whose kitty holds films as varied as ‘Bajrangi Bhaijan’ and ‘Children of War’. Laced with gentle irony and wit, the Bhutiani-Hussain duo gifts us a well edited script.
Now for the story, which luckily, is quite short. A repeated dream forewarns 77 year old retired school teacher of Kannauj, Dayashankar Sharma (Lalit Behl) of his death, or so he insists to his son Rajiv (Aadil Hussain), daughter-in-law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh). Rajiv has to accompany his father to Mukti Bhawan, a hotel in Benaras where Daya’s father had died. This hotel is exclusively for the dying. One can stay for 15 days, and if not dead within that time, they have to pay more and go back home, or stay on under another name. Things are managed, from bhajans to the burning ghat, literally, by the philosophizing but practical Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi), who never seems to turn away anyone on a death wish. Daya gels in beautifully with the boarders, especially the heart-warming Vimla, played interestingly by Lait Behl’s real-life ex-wife, Navnindra Behl. Daya recovers after Lata and Sunita also turn up following a scare where he seemed to be dying, the family enjoys an impromptu holiday before dispersing, Vimla passes away, and Daya dies eventually when everyone has left. As a story, it isn’t much. But it is precisely the script and direction that gives scope for very supportive performances on part of the cast; they actually seem to be a family! The boarders of the hotel and its quirky manager all live up to it, and in terms of performance, this is a balm for eyes tired with watching bombastic Bollywood movies competing with over-the-top Hollywood fanfare.
So is everything perfect about the movie? Unfortunately, no. Films that evolve out of script labs and as a result of multiple funding schemes often have a tendency to over-simplify the story, and ‘Mukti Bhawan’ is not an exception. Granted there are layers within this structure, there is still a skimming over whenever problems crop up. The father-son duo emote so well that the actors seem to be living the characters, but Bhutiani fights shy of exploring the complexities coming to surface when an old man and his middle-aged progeny are finally opening up to each other after a lifetime. Similarly, the father-daughter relation had scope for a few minutes more on screen to accentuate the girl’s growing up. But once again, the writer-director chooses to play safe with an easy reconciliation at the old man’s death. Sacrificing the artistic possibilities of a story/script just to live up to audience expectation and treading the beaten path to a ‘smiley’ finish is not healthy from a man fresh out of film school and otherwise such a strong director. The same ending would have made more sense had the film delved deeper into these two relations, but it never happened.
If Bhutiani’s treatment of relations shows a certain cleverness, he sidesteps the religion issue with laudable intelligence. In these times of popcorn flavoured Hindutva, all the stereotypical tropes of religion in ‘Mukti Bhawan’ evoke laughter. Aged boarders singing out-of-tune bhajans, brisk business at the burning ghat, the protagonists happily high on bhang as the famous Ganga aarti happens, and finally, Daya’s last journey turning into a sort of celebration – the scenes are handled with wry humour – sometimes even without the help of dialogues, as in a sequence of laborious kapalbhati at the ghats. Salvation is not to be bought so easily in terms of text book Punya like gifting a cow or dipping in the Ganga. It’s ultimately a realization that frees the ‘atma’, and this film gets the message across without selling ‘exotic India’ or becoming an awkward mouthpiece for the saffron brigade.
‘Mukti Bhawan’ has not had a very wide release, so theatre goers may face disappointment beyond this week. Despite its failing at the story level, there is a basic honesty of purpose in this film that invites recommendation. Mishraji tells all boarders at his hotel that death is a ‘process’, well, film making is a process too, and this one is a good example of it.