Mukti Bhawan movie review: A heartwarming tragicomic tale about life, death and reconciliation
Seventy seven year old Daya (Lalit Behl) recounts to his family that he’s been having recurring dream about his death. He decides therefore that it is time for him to move to Varanasi and prepare for his passing and impending salvation.
In the passive-aggressive way that only parents and family can effectively achieve, Daya persuades his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) to accompany him.
Torn between filial duty, professional responsibility and his daughter’s upcoming wedding, Rajiv reluctantly journeys to Varanasi with his father where they get the one vacant room at Mukti Bhawan. This Bhawan makes the Best Exotic Marigold hotel look plush, with its rat-infested rooms and peeling paint.
The head administrator, a practical man, informs them that the maximum stay is 15 days. However Daya soon befriends Vimla (Navnindra Behl), who has been a resident for 18 years, and finds renewed zest with like-minded folk who are all in a holding pattern, awaiting their salvation.
Rajiv is convinced his father’s time is not up, and continues to encourage him to return home. But Daya is adamant that his end is nearing.
The Venice Film Festival award winner (UNESCO Prix Enrico Fulchignoni), Mukti Bhawan — Hotel Salvation was seemingly designed to appeal to a festival audience, framing Varanasi with all its embellished exotica. The maha aarti on the riverbanks, the burning bodies on the ghats, boat rides, saffron clad devotees and narrow lanes are captured by Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler’s cameras.
Director Shubhashish Bhutiani handles the subject of reconciliation and death with a lightness of touch. Contrary to the suggestion of the title, he weaves a tragicomic tale orbiting around a father-son relationship. Black comedy creeps in with scenes such as when Daya has to perform a ritual with a calf and when Rajiv struggles with a poor internet connection on a Skype call to his family.
Hussain is wonderful as the man overwhelmed by all the responsibilities. Lalit Behl brings a resigned calm to his part, which is a subtle foil to Rajiv’s agitation. Geetanjali Kulkarni and Palomi Ghosh round off the family nicely as wife and daughter respectively.
A man at peace with his final days, surrounded by others awaiting their final rest, is juxtaposed with the son who is unable to shake off the pressures of his job and unreasonable boss.
So focussed is he on the everyday that Rajiv is unable to truly appreciate the value of the time he has on hand with his aged parent. The stern, and almost wise, words of his boss echo: Is Varanasi what it is because of the Ganges or is the Ganges what it is because of Varanasi?
If it’s the former, the Ganges flows through many other places too. Why is moksha/ salvation available only in Varanasi? Credit to dialogue writer Asad Hussain.
The concept of preparing for a peaceful passing in the most blessed place in India is life affirming and comforting. It’s no easy task dealing with the inevitability of death, with the subject of losing a parent and balancing that with humour, warmth and gratitude.
This is the most significant achievement of Bhutiani’s debut feature.