In Shubhashish Bhutiani’s “Mukti Bhawan” (titled "Hotel Salvation" in English), death is a “prakriya” (process) that must be carried out like a transaction. Most of the characters in the film wait for the end - their own or their loved ones - and Bhutiani handles it with a touch of humour, a welcome change from the breast-beating treatment that Bollywood has long given death.
Family patriarch Daya (Lalith Bahl), a gruff man who believes his time has come, decides to go to the holy city of Varanasi to spend his last days, just like his father before him. He forces his reluctant son Rajiv (Adil Hassan), already burdened with the many responsibilities an Indian middle-class city dweller faces, to accompany him to Mukti Bhawan, an inn which lets people check in and wait for their death.
Q&A: Shubhashish Bhutiani on ‘Mukti Bhawan’ reut.rs/2oHjJtg
For a city that spiritualises death so much, the actual nitty-gritty of dealing with the event is rather heartless in the film. Rajiv tells his father what kind of wood he’s chosen for the pyre, and the residents of the inn seem more keen on watching television shows than dwell on spirituality and the afterlife. After a particularly bad flu attack when his son thinks the end is near, Daya wakes up and whispers that he would like to go and watch his favourite show, putting an end to thoughts of death and salvation that had been swirling in Rajiv’s mind.
The relationship between Daya and Rajiv is the heart of the film and is wonderfully etched out. The emotions are in keeping with the awkward relationship most Indian men share with their fathers. Rajiv’s dilemma between his worldly worries and Daya’s seemingly endless wait for death is where Bhutiani’s craft comes through. Both Bahl and Hassan are top-notch, and Paulomi Ghosh as Rajiv’s free-spirited daughter adds a wonderful third dimension to the relationship.
The ghats of Banaras, as the city is also known, have been the focus of several Bollywood films over the years, notably “Masaan” in 2015. Bhutiani, however, focuses on his characters rather than the city, which he only uses as a backdrop.
To his credit, Bhutiani doesn’t crowd his screenplay and the camera is always at a distance, watching rather than intruding into the characters’ space. The pace meanders at times, but that lends to the stillness of the film and can hardly be counted as a flaw.
For a meditation on death and salvation, “Mukti Bhawan” is an accomplished effort, and one that must be appreciated.