Mukti Bhawan Review: A Place Of Higher Learning, Film Companion
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Director: Shubhashish Bhutiani

Cast: Lalit Behl, Adil Hussain, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Palomi Ghosh

In a country where so many die in the name of religion, death is perhaps the oldest natural religion. It’s a strange business. Growing old is the only prerequisite. There are rituals, customs, belief systems, showmanship, fear mongering and a guarantee of the most literal salvation possible. The independence that comes with it is staggering: after all, what can happen if you betray its kin? One can’t be killed any more than the dying it requires.

Daya (Lalit Behl) is the latest subscriber to this religion. He, too, conveniently perceives death to be the ultimate immunity for life’s misgivings. He can sense that “my time has come”. And, alternating between the cranky-Indian-parent and old-age card, he forces his preoccupied son Rajiv (Adil Hussain; his finest performance) to take him on the ultimate pilgrimage: a debilitated hotel called Mukti Bhavan on the banks of the Ganges in Banaras. People – sick, ancient, withering, tired, abandoned and fulfilled – check into this place to die. If they can’t manage this in two weeks, they must leave.

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Rajiv is revolted by the idea; he is incredulous and sarcastic and frustrated and wide-eyed, like a whiny rebel resisting an exploitative cult. He sounds like a child unable to fathom the flimsiness of an adult office party. He is us, and he could also be young 25-year-old director Shubhashish Bhutiani – who seems to be feeling, learning, growing and introspecting through Rajiv on a reluctant journey. Because Mukti Bhawan actually exists, and not just as the setting and philosophy for his first film.

Initially, the camera judges the place with a smirk: a smug faith-selling caretaker, kids playing cricket in the courtyard as zombies amble in, room rents being paid crudely, badly-written obituaries mocked for its millennial language, bhajan singers being ushered into rooms for appropriate “send-off” music. One can sense that Bhutiani, like many of us, wants to get to the bottom of this ‘scam’.

Death can’t possibly be a package deal. Until he realizes, like Rajiv does, that it isn’t about the place as much as it’s about the people who occupy it.

One of them is a father. And much of this is about his son – alone – in context of the life they’ve endured together. By the end, the gaze turns into a quiet, self-aware one; the obituaries sound poignant, the practices acquire the veil of tradition and somberness, and resentment turns into closure.

The template isn’t unfamiliar; films like Shoojit Sircar’s Piku and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska have effectively used the lingering stench of mortality as the flame rekindling severed parent-child equations. But Daya’s awkward existentialism is as politically incorrect as Edwin Hoover’s (Alan Arkin, in Little Miss Sunshine) – a man noticing his family on autopilot, and looking to fix it by being more of a lovable rogue than a senile patriarch.

He shells out unsolicited too-late advice to his son, and appreciates without acknowledging his daughter-in-law (Geetanjali Kulkarni). Though his granddaughter (Palomi Ghosh) sees beneath his gruff ‘cuteness’ to let his words affect her core. She is at the crossroads, and she’d rather embrace the free words of a man with nothing to live for, than a father who is trying to live too hard.

The template isn’t unfamiliar; films like Shoojit Sircar’s Piku and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska have effectively used the lingering stench of mortality as the flame rekindling severed parent-child equations

Also, there’s a history about Daya that one can sense between the lines, and between Rajiv’s muted creases and curious expressions. The sign of a good film lies in how it can suggest the machinations of an entire life, without really getting into flashbacks and backstories. It concocts up black-and-white visions of characters’ founding principles and personalities by merely showing us how they’ve become.

A lot can be imagined about someone like Daya. Scenes from Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan flooded my mind for some reason; if ‘father from hell’ Ronit Roy had maintained a lifelong oppressive grip over his son (Rajat Barmecha), perhaps they would have made the same trip together, too, in the twilight of his life – gentler, and a little repentant.

Because there’s something about watching old people operate. Behind all their aches, pains, illnesses, grumbling and phases of dementia, there’s an infantile helplessness about them that quite often disguises all their flaws, past mistakes and unreasonable attitude. It’s virtually impossible to be livid with them for more than five minutes.

Only recently, I found myself feeling this conflict about a key character in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman. The perpetrator is an old man. He looks too hapless to be an offender. Even though he has done something unforgivable to someone else’s wife, his advanced age and pathetic droopy face makes her, and us, sympathize with his plight instead of being repulsed by it.

Mukti Bhawan Review: A Place Of Higher Learning, Film Companion

By casting Lalit Behl as Daya, Bhutiani presents us with the same predicament. He was the silent, ailing and weakened patriarch of an oppressive and misogynistic household in Kanu Behl’s Titli. There, too, he fantasized about a final pilgrimage, before being brushed away by the monsters he created. Here, in a more civilized world, he has a noble son that indulges him. Nothing is irreparable yet. And clearly, from the flappy panicked ways of Rajiv, he hasn’t been the finest father. Rajiv struggles to not love him because of how old he has become; he forgets all the canings, quashing of writing dreams and villainy when Daya asks for water or food.

Perhaps he knows that when a life led is uneventful and unremarkable, or even unfair, growing old becomes a stage. And dying becomes the main event. A performance art in compensation. It’s like producing your own personal ride-into-the-sunset ending because the whole film cannot be reshot; concepts like reincarnation simply hold the promise of making your next film a better one. “Why a human? I’d rather be a tiger, or even a kangaroo,” chuckles Daya to a disgruntled Rajiv, when asked if he’d like to be reborn in their family. It makes them laugh, but it sheds some light on the kind of tiredness they wear.

This is perhaps when the younger man understands. He wouldn’t have listened if his father had just apologized. Instead, he has front-row seats to the old man’s final show. Cities like Banaras, and places like Mukti Bhavan, serve as equipment suppliers to Daya’s belated vision. Even the narrow, snaking passages between houses leading to the riverbank’s funeral-pyres have dimensions that seem designed to just about accommodate the widest bier – and not vice versa. And Rajiv is here, as the audience, only so that he may never need to return on his own one day.

Bhutiani paints all of this without using a brush. His craft is unobtrusive, with languid long takes and tragically funny situations, demonstrating a keenness to allow crumbling multigenerational bridges to unfold on their own accord. Like his other twenty-something contemporaries – Raam Reddy with his Kannada-language Thithi, and Chaitanya Tamhane with his Marathi-language Court – he, too, observes the ‘religion’ of death, and lets its superstitions recede to design a more bittersweet universality: the old man is always right, even when he isn’t.

Rating:   star

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