Indian films generally lack cultural specificity, narrative complexity and ambiguity. These things are seen as obstacles by many Indian film-makers who’d like to impart an ‘appealing’ homogenized atmosphere. The irony is that Indian movie audiences are gradually pulling themselves out of the so-called lagging ‘mainstream’. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s sublime debut feature Mukti Bhawan (aka ‘Hotel Salvation’, 2017) is the latest in a string of independent Indian productions that fascinatingly pays sharp attention to the nation’s social and cultural idiosyncrasies. Moreover, it’s always bewitching when a young film-maker takes on the themes of death and emancipation in his first feature. Hotel Salvation is an emotionally resounding yet a very culturally specific tale. It’s set in the holy city Varanasi where everything from its architecture to the inhabitants is multi-layered. Like many other modern Indian cities, Varanasi couldn’t be imprisoned within single definition. This paradoxical city is the very important piece in this gently probing character-driven cinema.
It isn’t possible to strictly categorize Hotel Salvation. Yes it’s about death but the color palette is bright and vivid which evokes warmth and pays tribute to life. It has brilliant low-key comic situations but it’s definitely not a comedy. The impulse to categorize could actually work against experiencing this film. Mr. Bhutiani’s chronicle on the journey towards salvation or enlightenment insists on the art of learning to let go. It may also be the better advice to encompass ourselves within the narrative.
Daya (Lalit Behl), the healthy 77 year old patriarch of a middle class Indian family, declares to his family that he is ready to die. He takes a recurring nightmare as the valid sign for his imminent death. The workaholic, stressed middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is naturally puzzled. Abiding by the traditional path, Daya plans to go to Varanasi and spend his final days on the banks of holy river Ganges (its Hindu faith that people who die there would achieve salvation, escaping the endless cycle of life). Rajiv complies with his father’s wishes and decides to accompany him to Varanasi after hurriedly organizing things at the office. The father and son check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’, run by priest/proprietor Mishraji who sets them up in a room after conveying string of rules, including the strict stay limit of 15 days ("If you die, good for you. If you don't, go back home”). As days go by Rajiv learns that the place and its people don’t exist within a rigid framework. Moreover, since the father and son are freed from usual burdens they get moments to reflect on their relationship. While Mr. Daya finds kindred spirits before setting on his final journey, Rajiv is driven restless by job obligations and family troubles -- his daughter Sunita’s (Palomi Ghosh) betrothal is breaking apart. And, all these conflicts in relationships and emotions subtly take root and stumbles upon organic, unforced resolution.
Using inter-generational differences as a narrative device was recently done in Raam Reddy’s Thithi (2015). Mukti Bhawan, however, inculcates different shades to this familiar theme using carefully calibrated characterizations. Writer/director Bhutiani also adds an interesting dimension to the inter-generational relationship through Ghosh’s granddaughter character. Bhutiani talked in an interview about how the word ‘mukti’ means freedom or liberation which is different from its otherwise strictly religious meaning of ‘salvation’. Seen from that perspective, the film broods on the question of ‘what constitutes liberation?’ in the life of a girl in 20s, a man in his 50s and another man in late 70s. For Sunita and Rajiv the freedom reflects the need to restructure their life (or ‘following the heart’), whereas for Daya the liberation is of ethereal nature. Death is an important theme that’s added into this mix, but doesn't work as the predominantly gloomy theme. The whole exploration of Varanasi showcases how life and human warmth flows in a place where death isn’t just an opposite force but just a constant companion. Such heavy-lifting themes of redemption, familial relationships and death usually make a film-maker to entangle himself in philosophical drudgery, although Bhutiani only focuses on the tangible human emotions. Simple gestures of empathy and thoughtful silence replace extravagant words.
Mr. Bhutiani was 21 when he wrote and directed the 25 minute short film Kush (set against the backdrop of 1984 anti-Sikh riots) which won various laurels including Orizzonti Award at the Venice Film Festival. He was 23 when he embarked on this project (produced as part of Venice Film Festival's Biennale College programme). What’s astounding about him is the way he instills emotional sensitivity without forsaking his nuanced craftsmanship. As I mentioned Mukti Bhawan is culturally specific. But the emotions can impact humans beyond geographical boundaries. The cultural specificity in the narrative doesn’t restrict itself to the Hindu faith on death and salvation. It’s intertwined amongst the character dilemmas and beliefs. While there’s hefty cultural tribute paid to the city of Varansi, Bhutiani also probes at some of the culturally out-dated elements (for example, Rajiv deciding on his daughter's life). The narrative’s comedy elements mostly arise from awkward silences and the general inefficiency which we constitute as one definition of Indian-ness. That’s excellently portrayed in the scene when furious Rajiv communicates with his daughter and wife through Skype (after the daughter breaks up her engagement) in a poorly-linked cyber cafe. In the scene, Rajiv’s feelings aren’t belittled but the confusion that develops from the relatable situation derives some laughs. Furthermore, the low-key comedy works as a means to understand the character’s different shades rather than being used as a mere distraction.
Right from the opening scene, Bhutiani delivers the palpable sense of existing in cramped conditions; the limited space within which we can’t escape from fellow humans and their display of emotions (impressive cinematography by David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney). Yet within such chaotic, disorganized space there’s possibility of peacefulness and sense of gratification as we come to terms with people in our immediate surroundings. The director is aware of when to push the scene for emotions and when to drench it with silence. All the actors from Lalit Behl, Adil Hussain to Navnindra Behl (Vimla) give superb performances because they have very much aligned themselves with the ebb and flow of Bhutiani’s vision. After a mild altercation with daughter Sunita, Rajiv seems to have stumbled upon a realization. But he doesn’t express it in melodramatic words or melt with tears. There’s just a wordless shot of Rajiv watching his daughter going to job in his father’s old scooter. He helps her start the vehicle and for a moment they look at each other and it’s understood the conflict is somehow resolved. Then there’s one of my favorite scene towards the end that happens after Daya’s death. Rajiv and other men walk through cramped space carrying his father’s corpse. It’s a very tight shot and when he uncontrollably cries we shed tears alongside him. But then his daughter and wife chip into the frame and the shot goes wide, the daughter gently encouraging her dad to clap and sing hymns. And suddenly the tightness of the situation dissipates to makes us see death as the beautiful journey of a satiated soul. It’s in these uncommunicative yet strongly impactful scenes thrives the brilliance of Mukti Bhawan; just like how simple words doesn’t have provide the sensation of attaining ‘mukti’.
Mukti Bhawan (100 minutes) evidently showcases how refined visual storytelling can get to the depth of human emotions without resorting to high drama. Director Bhutiani’s impressive maturity in tackling heavy themes with a positively infectious tone of optimism doubles up our faith in humanity as well as in contemporary Indian cinema.