Mukti Bhavan Review

Shot in the holy city of Varanasi, "Mukti Bhavan" is about an old man who wants to die in the city to attain salvation. (photo provided)

Produced by: Sanjay Bhutiani & Sajida Sharma

Directed by: Shubhashish Bhutiani

Written by: Shubhashish Bhutiani & Assad Husain

Music: Tajdar Junaid

Starring: Lalit Behl, Adil Hussain, Palomi Ghosh, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Anil K. Rastogi, Navnindra Behl and others

Daya (Lalit Behl), 77, wants to die in the holy city of Varanasi to attain salvation. His affectionate middle-class family in Kanpur, comprising busy bee son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), daughter-in-law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) try to dissuade him, even telling him that he is nowhere near leaving this planet. But the old man is stubborn.

Harangued by his taskmaster boss, Rajiv manages to get a fortnight’s leave to accompany his father to a place called ‘Mukti Bhawan’ (which translates as the House of Salvation, or “Hotel Salvation,” the film’s international title), a lodge in the holy city where such people land up, and according to the owner Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi), must die within 15 days or go back. Off and on, Rajiv keeps getting calls from his boss about “sales targets” but manages to calm down his superior and attend to his father, who shows bouts of irascibility about many things from Rajiv’s replying to the many calls or wanting specific things in food.

As the 15-day deadline gets over, Rajiv realizes that Mishraji merely changes the names of his customers but keeps them in residence! The record is held by Vimla (Navnindra Nehl), a sprightly old lady who has been there for 18 years! Lata and Sunita come to meet Daya, renewing their pleas to return home, but finally, even Rajiv has to leave. Before this, Rajiv, showing the same stubbornness as his dad, is furious at Sunita breaking off her engagement as she wants to work and earn, riding a two-wheeler belonging to grandad Daya that he had taught her quietly!

The sudden end shows Daya’s funeral, where Rajiv and wife Lata are upset, but Sunita, always having a fun relationship with the old man, insists that death must be a celebration for obvious reasons – the soul has attained permanent salvation and bliss!

Now, apart from the uniqueness of the subject and rare bouts of lifelike humor and satire, what precisely is the point of making such pseudo fare? And then daring to presume that hard-earned audience money will go into watching it? As with most such pretentious films aimed at pandering to impressionable festivals and media persons, the film stretches, even in its limited yet tedious length of 102 minutes, into a thin elastic band that can either break or turn limp with elastic fatigue, and both phenomena are seen here.

Clearly, the director (and main writer) Bhutiani has no clue how and where to end this rudderless, directionless tale, forget giving any valid messages on life and death. Isn’t (good) cinema all about storytelling? At least in India?

Also, and VERY IMPORTANTLY, when aged people go to a holy city to die alone and even pay money for it for an obviously unlimited period, should they be harassed into cooking for themselves, washing their clothes and cleaning their filthy, rat-infested rooms? Forget climbing and going down and so on. Funnily, the old people are shown enjoying their drudgery, having conversations, boat rides and more. And it all seems so ludicrous that their physical discomforts seem unimportant!

This could have been a biting satire on various aspects of life, death and obviously salvation with death refusing to come to the old man and his realizing that and returning home. Instead, it becomes a fatiguing and ennui-inducing tale with sporadic satirical glimpses into the rank commercialization of both the holy city and working men’s lives, as shown by the boss and his approach.

The satire, in the final analysis, is barely sharp, and midway through, we have lost sympathy for the silly old man who lives life in Mukti Bhawan to the fullest and callously makes his son a kind of attendant instead of letting him be a responsible son, husband, and father.

Good dialogues, skilled cinematography, and astute production design make little difference in such misguided and misfired cases. The music (Tajdar Junaid) is evocative only in bits and spurts, with the guitar failing to evoke emotions the way, say, a violin, sitar or even a piano could have.

The director-cum-principal writer indulges himself to the full, trying, again, in the final analysis, to be self-consciously critical about his religion and culture, with a guarded hypocritical air. Obviously, that’s how anonymous global festivals will like this “evolved Indian” who, like so many before him, is “rightly” abashed, if not ashamed or trenchant, about his religion/culture/country.

Lalit Behl is a powerhouse of talent, and one wishes that he stops choosing subjects like the deviant “Titli” and this one. Ultimately, it is a waste if he wants to make a career in movies. Adil Hussain is splendid yet again and dominates the film despite the old man’s more dramatic role. Navnindra Behl as Vimla is a perky delight, and her sudden death is the first juncture at which the film starts degenerating – and fast!

Palomi Ghosh (who played a Goan singer to perfection three years ago in the Konkani masterpiece “Nachom-La Kumpasar,” even winning a special Mention and a Certificate of Merit when this writer was in the jury in 2015) acquits herself well though her character lacks meat. Gitanjali Kulkarni looks every inch the middle-class U.P. housewife despite being a Maharashtrian. Anil K. Rastogi, in comparison to the rest of the cast, almost plays to the gallery.

This one could have been a thought-inducing, genuinely funny masterpiece. But its makers decide to take what is now the standard easy way out, committing a sans-salvation suicide in global festival terrain!

Rating: ** (Mainly for the performances!)

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