Dying is a process, says one of the characters in Subhashish Bhutiani’s astutely calm and wondrous debut feature film “Mukti Bhawan” (A.KA Hotel Salvation). It’s a beautiful contemplation of death and salvation, living and healing, dying and learning. Whoever lodges in the light of Bhutiani’s film can’t come out without being a more real person that he/she was before. It moves you to an extent where you embrace all the small things that define you or are suppose to define you and celebrate every new entity. Even if it is a loss of something truly yours.
Old people are mostly the focus of attention in a family. The very young crowd wants to listen to their stories, the middle-aged generation is tired of their repetitiveness and has hence become a butt of their inside jokes. The generation closest to them wants them to live just a little bit longer for reasons even unknown to them. Bhutani’s film is about all of these things and none of them. He doesn’t want you to be in the poignant state from the word go. On the contrary, his focus becomes death itself. The film embraces death like a child hugs his father with all the guilt of a lifetime. The embrace is mutual and self-reflective and hence deeply moving.
Dayanand is a stubborn 76 (Actually 77) year old man. He has had visions of his childhood for quite some time now. To which he quickly manipulates of being visions of his approaching death and hence decides to move to Banaras (Kashi to be more specific) and die in a spiritual spirit by the holy river. His working-class son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and daughter-in-law Lata (Gitanjali Kulkarni) refuse to follow up on his adamant behavior by questioning the very idea of “How can one know that he is about to die?” Even after constant persuasion, which includes an eschews melodramatic turn of the old sister visiting Dayanand on the birthday, he remains rigid on his decision. Rajiv, realizing that this might possibly be the last journey in his father’s life accompanies him to the shore of the Ganga, straight into the depths of “Hotel Salvation.”
Mukti Bhawan is an old lodge on the ghats of the holy river. Elderly people come here at their prime seeking for ‘moksha’ (salvation), with a strict 15-day policy of leaving if death doesn’t come your way. Mukti Bhawan offers no real salvation in the name of comfort. The food has to be self-prepared and you need to make choices between watching the daily soap, reeling in bed, doing yoga or listening to the loud holy tunes that soothe the soul. Dayanand befriends a kind lady, who, as it turns out has been living here for a little over 18 years now. She thus has a new name for her soul every 15 days, as if disowning and owning a body. Rajiv is deeply tormented between his father’s will to live in such a place, unable to get his office work done, and getting negative replies from his daughter whose marriage has been fixed.
Bhutiani’s film is a sharp commentary on all the myths that have been formed by the process of death. The very essence of losing oneself before time takes you on a drifting journey to whatever lies ahead is explored in the film with a subtle calmness. We have been so consumed by the idea of death that when it comes to our loved ones, we try to stop it with chemicals and hospital visits, failing to understand the inevitability of it all. “Mukti Bhawan” tells you to celebrate life and death with the same energy and calmness. At its core, is the bond between a father & and son who don’t understand each other even though they have been living under the same roof and the same house for years. Both of them try to hold each other’s hand and walk down the same path but somehow, somewhere things get lost in translation (referring to Elizabeth Jennings’s poem ‘Father & Son’).
As much as the film is about the last goodbyes, its sole aim becomes the peace that one’s mind needs and deserves. Bhutani doesn’t propose his characters to be sinners in any way but there are always deeply etched regrets that one lives with all through their life. Bhutani, in a very gentle way, takes us into the soul of each person in the film – their regrets (from being small things as leaving childhood poetry to not appreciating a wife’s meal making capabilities), their stories, their weirdness (at one point the lead character wishes to be reborn as a Kangaroo) and their lives that will be defined by their words and wisdom and nothing else.
“Mukti Bhawan” has great performances all around. Lalit Behl is phenomenal as the man who is in total acceptance of his fate. The way he walks past the ghats, with his heavy, old eyes noticing the moving water. His anger and stubbornness that comes out when his son is A – either busy on the phone or B – is probably too naive to understand the true meaning of his last voyage to eternity, comes to the play with a very subtle performance. Adil Hussain feels incredibly real as the son who wants to take up the responsibility of everything that surrounds him. From juggling work life, his daughter’s marriage and his father’s last wish, the confusion and exhaustion show up with a light and artistic touch.
David Huwiler’s cinematography is beautiful. It occasionally points to the not so substantial things in a frame, giving us a sense of belonging, an extra eye in this incredible celebration of life and eventual death. Instead on focusing on the poignant decay, the frames mostly take us to the river or the narrow colorful lanes of Banaras for everything to settle in. The film is also beautifully scored by the indie musical genius Tajdar Junaid, whose Ukelele and use of Indian sounds give the film an extra edge of profoundness.
At the ends of it all, the film sheds a spiritual light on the seemingly dark path to inevitable oblivion. Subhashish Bhutiani presents such a vivid sense of love, regrets, understanding and leaving things behind that, without much ado, you shed your soulless being and instantly lighten up. The film doesn’t just provide you with salvation, it gives your life and possible death a new meaning. A meaning that should be left to the understanding of the conscience and nothing more than that. “Mukti Bhawan” is an instant classic that will remain in my mind till I find myself in my own weary days.