Mukti Bhawan movie review: Unpredictable and engaging, just like life itself
Shubhashish Bhutiani's Mukti Bhawan (or Hotel Salvation) isn't a difficult watch, but it leaves you with difficult questions.
The film follows the life of Daya (Lalit Behl), an old man awaiting his death. His relationship with his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), daughter-in-law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and another old woman he meets at Mukti Bhawan, Vimla (Navnindra Behl), make the whole film.
This isn't a film rushing to a climax, it's as slow burning and abrupt as life itself, unpredictable and completely engaging, despite being seemingly mundane.
Recently, there was a Tanishq ad with four impossibly privileged 40-year-old women talking about their lives. Described as a 'slice of life' ad, it represented a slice of almost nobody's life. Mukti Bhawan is the exact opposite, as it allows the viewer to follow its characters around, not in a quest to do something fantastic, but in deeply personal moments of introspection, understanding, conflict, and even resolution.
Complexity in the simple life
Indian families are often shy of intimacy. To acknowledge that you love your family and to tell them so is quite unusual. Not unheard of, but unusual.
These barriers of intimacy are broken, if at all, with sexual relationships, or, as Mukti Bhawanreminds us, with death. Daya, as an old man, values the human ties that bind him to our world. He recognises the need to communicate, break free of status quo, apologise where necessary, censure when needed, and enable where he can.
His relationship with his son Rajiv, which is the backbone of this film, slowly alters. The film starts with a disgruntled Rajiv talking to his wife Lata. He doesn't wish to accompany his father to Kashi, a journey he sees as a pointless one that'll rob him of crucial working days. Lata, in turn, quite insensitively though not maliciously, enquires how long it takes for a person to die in Kashi.
As Rajiv spends more time isolated with his father, and less with his phone and family, he starts seeing his father as an individual, with ambition, desire, love – possibly everything he's given up on to support his family.
Meanwhile, Daya finds a partner for his dying days in Vimla, a woman who has been waiting for her death for years. Together they enjoy whatever little life they have left, because there's no point obsessing with death, it comes at its own time, as Vimla says.
They have transcended the time for worry. As Daya, on being asked if he was ready to start accepting the process of dying, says, “I've already started the process”.
Kashi is a beautiful trope used in the film, as in Hinduism it is seen as place to attain moksha. We often understand moksha as a soul's actualisation of self, letting go of the body. But metaphorically, Mukti Bhawan establishes moksha as a recurring theme of letting go.
Daya lets go of societal pressures and writes his own obituary, Rajiv lets go of his prejudices and tries to understand his father better, Lata lets go of control and returns home, Sunita just lets go and decides to follow her dreams, and Vimla, finally, lets go of this life.
Breath of fresh air
Mukti Bhawan doesn't feel the need to dramatise death. This is remarkable because death serves as a reason for most other films to lay on the melodrama.
Instead, it shows death as a part of life, something to celebrate as much as mourn. Something to respect, as much as romanticise. And something to write about and discuss freely, not as a morbid obsession, but as an inevitability.
Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain carry the film on their shoulders respectfully, as one would when carrying the body of one's closest companions. Behl's Daya is light-hearted, curious, willing to try bhaang with as much enthusiasm as offering to write everyone a well-written obit. Hussain's Rajiv is observant, troubled, the veins on his neck stick out at he grins impossibly for his boss on the phone.
The actors project these layered characters with conviction, and are supported perfectly by the rest of the cast, each essaying his/her role as though they were living it out.
Mukti Bhawan is not a film one must watch to enjoy a movie with friends or family over the weekend. It's a film one must watch to introspect, quietly, preferably on their own. Because one's life and death is, after all, one's own.
Having said that, it's not a difficult watch. It's filled with delightful light moments that catch you off guard, the sort that could leave you laughing and tearing up, all at once.