Dayanand Kumar (Lalit Behl) is convinced that his death is near. The 77-year-old had a mysterious dream, which, he believes, portended his end. Daya, though, isn’t rattled by this realisation. He appears strangely serene, determined to fulfil his final wish: travel to Varanasi, check into a lodge and die in the holy city – steps that will help him attain salvation. In Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut, Mukti Bhawan, people aren’t afraid of death; in fact, they anticipate its arrival with hope and grace, believing it will give them something life couldn’t: freedom.
Bhutiani never hammers this point, but, through snatches of dialogue, the film’s characters reveal their most pressing struggle: the yearning to be free. Take, for instance, Daya’s son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), a middle-aged man who once wanted to be a writer, but is now confined to a demanding boss and a routine job. Or, for that matter, Daya’s daughter, Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), chained to her family and their determinations to get her married against her will. Daya’s existential crisis is immediate, apparent and vocal; his family members’ woes, on the other hand, are muted, suppressed even.
And it is this constant tension – between the desire for a liberating death and the drudgery of an unfulfilled life, between resignation and acceptance – that marks much of Mukti Bhawan. When Rajiv reluctantly accompanies Daya to Varanasi, we see a new facet of the old man. At Mukti Bhawan, the eponymous lodge promising salvation, Daya feels at home, and, probably after years, less alone. Here, he meets people who are at a similar stage in their lives. He opens up to them, while watching TV shows and sharing meals. He strikes up an endearing friendship with Vimla, a woman who has been “waiting to die for the last 18 years”. The irony of finding a home away from home is probably lost on Daya; however, Mukti Bhawan helps him reconnect with Rajiv, too – through conversations that dig out their uncomfortable past, for the former squashed his son’s artistic aspirations. This also helps us better understand Rajiv, a man stifling his daughter’s desire, someone becoming a poorer version of his own father – a story that is, quite unfortunately, known to many Indian families.
Mukti Bhawan is often alert to small moments, which reveal its characters’ motivations and their inner world. The film also, quite impressively, finds humour in ordinary situations, pleasantly catching us off guard: be it Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni), Rajiv’s wife, speculating about her father-in-law’s death, grilling her husband in the process; or a potentially intense conversation between Sunita and her parents, on Skype, turning farcical due to a flakey internet connection; or Sunita clicking selfies with a holy cow. It’s notable that a drama like Mukti Bhawan, grim at the outset, takes its lightness of touch seriously, which is most evident in its buoyant background score that prevents the film from being maudlin. Mukti Bhawan’s also elevated by impressive performances, most notably by Behl, who utilises his haunting eyes, and his quiet yet imposing presence to memorable effect.
And yet, despite sweating the small stuff, despite restrained acting and assured storytelling, Mukti Bhawan is a classic case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. It is a film that fails to add up, which precariously sits between passable and good. And it’s so because some of its motifs – familial oppression rippling through generations, parents failing their children, temporary companionship in old age – are not really new to Hindi indies. As a result, Mukti Bhawan seems, for the most part, a familiar emotional experience – one that affects us only that much. It’s also marked by a flat pitch; barring a few impressive comedic scenes, the rest of the film is a little too even, failing to draw us in. It is, however, worth noting that a film dealing with the big questions – life, death, salvation – is at its most poignant when it touches upon the joy, pain, at times even the sheer absurdity, of the most mundane moments, ones that glow only in hindsight.