Mukti Bhawan director on his debut feature: 'People check-in to die in this Varanasi guesthouse':
For an independent debut feature film, made with a shoe-string budget, director Shubhashish Bhutiani didn’t want Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) to remain small in its reach or impact.
He’s always felt that it’s a kind of film that people can connect to, and his dream and ambition of taking the film beyond the festival circuit has been achieved with it getting a theatrical release all over India on April 7.
Mukti Bhawn premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where 25-year-old Bhutiani was awarded the Prix Enrico Fulchignoni by the UNESCO jury. Further, the film travelled to the Busan International Film Festival, and has since made it to several film festivals across the world.
Mukti Bhawan tells the story of a middle-aged man (Adil Hussain) who takes his ailing father (Lalit Behl) to the Mukti Bhawan guesthouse in Varanasi, where the dying wait for death and salvation. Guests can book a room for a maximum of 15 days and wait for the inevitable. The two men, the father and son, find themselves in an unusual situation when they have to spend two weeks together – one is waiting for another to die even as an emotional bond that never existed before develops between them.
But the film is far from morbid or disturbing. It’s a universal, heart-warming family film with dollops of humour in it. “It is a kind of film people can connect to. Some parts are very funny,” says Bhutiani.
“But it is not a ‘let’s put a joke here’ kind of film. The situation and characters bring humour in. Also, dialogue writer Asad Hussain added great lines. The idea is that people from all over India see the film. It is not just releasing in metros but releasing in smaller cities as well and I hope it is given a chance and people watch it," adds the director who believes that all kinds of cinema should co-exist.
Bhutiani's previous film, Kush was nominated for the Oscars. In Kush (2013), a Sikh boy faces a threat to his life during a school trip, after riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Kush was in the long list of 10 live-action shorts competing for the final five nominations in the Oscar race of 2014.
With a close brush with the Academy awards and now worldwide acclaim for Mukti Bhawan, the 25-year-old director speaks about his "coincidence".
"I went backpacking in India and I travelled from Kerala to Varanasi. I had heard of some guesthouses in Varanasi where people check in to die. I wanted to see it to believe it. I found the place very interesting , the idea for a film came later and that is why I went back with more questions. I wondered what did this kind of location meant to any family,” says Bhutiani, who shot the film last March and completed it in one month.
He continues, “It is an Indian film and I didn’t know what to expect at the Venice Film Festival. I had no idea who would come for the screening because some of the biggest movies, like La La Land plays there. But it was full house in an evening show. I could see people reacting, they were laughing and smiling. I could feel the energy of the audience. They could connect to the film and in the end people came and hugged me, they talked to me and shared their life and their own experiences. They were also astounded that there is such a place that exists.”
Another strength of Mukti Bhawan is its stellar cast. Filmmaker Kanu Behl’s father, theatre actor Lalit Behl (last seen in Kanu’s own Titli ), plays the patriarch, and the well-known actor Adil Hussain is his middle-aged son. Geetanjali Kulkarni, who played the public prosecutor in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court , plays the daughter-in-law.
“I chose each person for different reasons. Adil was everybody’s choice and it happened quite quickly and I have always been a fan of Geetanjali. I had seen Titli and Lalit Behl’s face was with me when I was writing my script. I wanted someone who was dominating, someone who can bully a son little bit without saying anything,” says the director.