“I’m so tired of this life. I just want to go off now.” If you’ve heard these lines from any elder in your family, chances are that your reaction would be an irritated roll-of-the-eyes at this seemingly bromidic utterance, for which you neither have the time nor the patience. Make the time. Garner the strength and the will yourself to be patient. For, you never know when you’ll cross the rubicon and touch a point of despairing life.
Make the time for Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), that’s easily this year’s best Hindi movie, and will in all likelihood, retain that position. Writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani, he a ripe 25 year old, delivers a movie that will haunt you long after you step out of the cinema hall. Displaying a dazzling yet underplayed maturity behind the lens, Bhutiani crafts cinema that is touching yet happy; it’s poignant as it is celebratory; a journey that’s filled with caches of wisdom and truisms, waiting for you to double-click and discover them.
Varanasi is dotted with guesthouses that serve a sole (and soul) purpose – people check in to die near the Ganges, and attain salvation. Healthy people are barred from becoming guests, and it’s only the terminally ill or those who get that inner calling that they’re being “called” are allowed to stay. In other words, no place for the factitious. Bhutiani bases his enterprise on one such person, Dayanand (Lalit Behl), who’s now gotten into his head that his time is arriving shortly, and that he ought to make appropriate accommodations immediately. Despite protestations from his furiously busy son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain) – he an insurance agent, struggling to meet targets, calculating the cost of his daughter’s marriage, and in general, rolling-his-eyes-for-everything his father says; and his daughter in-law, Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni), she looking at this ask with equal measure askance and ludicrity – he’s decided to take leave. And the only one who seems to take this with a pinch of salt and laugh is Dayanand’s granddaughter, Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), she the aforesaid daughter who faces an equally uneasy prospect – that of marriage. (In the opening scene at the dining table, after her grandfather makes the announcement, she mutters under her breath, picks up her unfinished dinner plate, and you can hear her dump the food. It’s only later you realize why she’s cheesed off.)
When parents get so adamant, as did Bhaskar Banerjee in Piku, children rarely have a choice. Neither does Rajiv, as he, torn between work and homely comfort, finally gives in and accompanies his father to check into Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi. His only hope? The place offers a cloth-covered room for a fortnight. If said candidate is alive instead of kicking the bucket after the designated period, preparations and reparations have to be made for a more deserving and needy soul. Any chance of any person having second thoughts about extending their material stay on this planet is, to me, quickly snuffed out, once they see the dingy, musty, and severely unmaintained Bhawan. And why not? Who’d want to spruce a place if folks come a visiting only to shed their physical molds?
Director Bhutiani isn’t here to throw scenes in your face. He isn’t here to make an Indie-for-dummies either. He’s here to nudge you into the lives of these characters, and then watch you watch them. He isn’t in a hurry, and yet accomplishes a narrative of gigantic proportions in an hour and 40 minutes. He’s content to position the camera at beautifully placed locations that are at once strategic and dramatic. He allows the cast to breathe, to expunge, to catharize, to live. And to die. Here’s the camera showing you Rajiv and Lata in their bedroom, placed such that she’s in front of the dressing table applying night cream, while he’s on the bed with his work files, the door frame a solid line of control between them. And so very naturally, as Geetanjali Kulkarni’s Lata vigorously applies the cream, you know it is Adil Hussain’s Rajiv who’s getting creamed in the argument. There’s the camera catching a mad moment between Sunita, Dayanand and his new found friend in Mukti Bhawan, Vimla (Navnindra Behl – she if you’re interested, the real-life spouse of Lalit Behl playing Dayanand), all of them high on bhang (an edible preparation of cannabis) , while Rajiv is suitably horrified and dismayed, not realizing what’s wrong with them. And that scene is such a beautiful reversal of behavior – the elders running amok, while the offspring admonishing them to concentrate on the prayers. Isn’t that true of real life as well, sometimes, as the wormhole of ages comes into play?
And here’s the camera catching a warm, lovable, and delightful moment of candor and mirth between father and son, both seemingly laughing at the next-life choice of the father, but actually breaking down a barrier that’s been there, and undone so much. And there’s the lens again, capturing a brilliant argument between father and daughter on Skype. And here it is, making you realize that a false alarm can actually create bonds and burn down resentment faster than anything else – that even a simulated run of what life could be, without a parent, can infuse you with a sudden surge of hopeless feelings – perhaps the same feeling that they felt when our parents held us for the first time – protective, loving, and scared – desperate emotions colliding to create pure love.
Mukti Bhawan has a terrific technical team that immerse you right into it. Cinematographers David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney use sunlight, dark shadows, flickering lights, dust, and crowds so beautifully, you can actually smell the places. Sound designers Akhilesh Acharya and Ajay Kumar P.B. dimension out the sounds in distinctly life-like layers, not for once reminding you that you’re in a cinema hall. Avyakta Kapur’s production design is scathingly real, adding a depth that no 3-D movie can ever hope to achieve. The music score by Tajdar Junaid is solidly effective, not making you realize that he’s even orchestrating instruments to make you emote in your seat. The end music piece will make you cry. But more of the end in the end.
The cast is simply outstanding. Geetanjali Kulkarni shines in her role as the mother, wife, and daughter in-law, her affections and anger all equally and statistically distributed. Palomi Ghosh is superb as the impish, saucy girl who gets her own way, and when the time demands, becomes the pillar of support and hope for her parents. Lalit Behl, he of the haltingly gruff voice and uncertain demeanor, is a class act. This is one patriarch act that’ll have you spell bound forever. Navnindra Behl and Anil K. Rastogi (the latter playing the phlegmatic “manager” of the Bhawan) are simply delightful. And then there’s Ideal Adil Hussain. His acting is as sharp as the line of moustache on his upper lip, he pivoting effortlessly as the hapless son, the ragged employee, the veteran husband, and the hassled father. He makes you laugh, he makes you empathize, he makes you cry. This is a standing-applause performance, one that’ll define him and get him into the permanent hall of Indian cinema fame.
In the end, Mukti Bhawan will do so many things to you. You will cry – not in a manipulative, long-drawn out, blockbuster-ish way, but in an unexpected, least-when-you-expect-it, life-ish way. The cinema hall I was in was hushed, as each one of us struggled with our emotions. It will make you think. And finally, Mukti Bhawan will make you realize that celebrating life is as important as celebrating death. That, when you got to go, you got to go and let go. And if that isn’t a triumphant celebration of life and death, what is?
Mukti Bhawan is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition).
Director Shubhashish Bhutiani Running Time 1h 42 mi
Writer Shubhashish Bhutiani
Stars Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Palomi Ghosh
Genres Comedy, Drama
Watch the trailer of Mukti Bhawan here: