Mukti Bhawan movie review: A brilliant tale of human life (and death)
Mukti Bhawan is a heightened culmination of Benares, a last leap of faith for the unquestioning believer. Here’s our movie review.
Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kulkarni
Director: Shubhashish Bhutiani
“Kitne din lagenge?” a wife asks her husband – who’s about to travel to Benares with his aged father – while fervently applying moisturiser. The scene has the banality of a conversation in a middle-class Indian family.
Actually, these are extraordinary circumstances. The father, Daya, a retired school teacher (Lalit Behl) has a death wish. To be more specific, he wants to check in to Mukti Bhawan, a hotel that really exists in Benares, where people check in to die, in the belief that the path out of here leads to salvation.
Cinema must often rely on dramatization to highlight a story. But when your subject is so bizarre, the challenge is to treat it with measure and normalcy. Director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s powerful feature-film debut, Mukti Bhawan, does not only that, but manages to add a lens of scepticisim and humour to what is otherwise a morbid, depressing story.
Benares is the epicentre of the Hindu religion. It is where you go as a child to shave your head; as an adult to be rid of your sins; and where you hope to die and be cremated. The circle of life plays out here in fast forward, over and over, with dizzying, disturbing universality.
Mukti Bhawan is a heightened culmination of Benares, a last leap of faith for the unquestioning believer. “Maas, machhi to nahi khaate? Daru to nahi peete?” you get asked at the gate by a man called Mishraji (Anil Rastogi), its veteran manager. It is for the staunchest of Hindus, for those who have rigidly followed the laid-down path.
Bhutiani rarely goes out of his way to criticize this way, choosing to show rather than tell. In Mukti Bhawan’s rules, he shows the rigidity of the religion itself, one that demands blind belief, and does not encourage debate or deviance.
Yet, in the commercial approach of the place, he also shows the ruthless business of religion. Mishra gives the same spiel of high demand, and a room just having been vacated, to everyone. The banter is deliberately like that at any regular hotel. To flout the two-week stay cut-off, Mishra is also happy to change your name in the hotel register. In effect, we have a death-wish hotel, where the amenities include bhajan sessions, kapaal bharti on the ghat, boating on the river, and materialistic ties such as addiction to TV soaps.
There is a thin, sensitive line between scepticism and ridicule. Especially when it comes to Hinduism. Especially in the times we live in. Bhutiani is acutely aware of this. So, he chooses to tell the story primarily through the eyes of Rajiv (Adil Hussain), Behl’s middle-aged accountant son. But he also shifts focus and looks at him critically at times. He’s a man torn between tradition and modernity; between a boss on an incessantly vibrating phone and the sense of duty of a good son. He has the objectivity to question Mukti Bhawan and its staff, and to see it as a business model. But he has the same rigidity he hates in his father, in setting up an arranged marriage for his daughter without asking her. Hussain isn’t just credible as the everyman, he is brilliant. You see a bit of the everyson in him, and the everyfather. You agree when he is critical; you tear up when he cries.
In the end, rather than being about the heavy religious stuff, it is about universal human drama. As a father and son reconcile, it is near heart-breaking. As an old man and his grandaughter sneak out for bhang, it tells you that the most devout have mischief in them. Bhutiani gives death its due dignity, and yet retains its objectivity and subtlety. It makes you laugh, and cry, and think and question. It’s what good cinema and storytelling are meant to do.
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