Mayank Shekhar: Why talk about Mukti Bhawan now?
A still from Mukti Bhawan, where Adil Hussain’s character tries to confirm whether his 77-year-old father (Lalit Bahl) is breathing, only to have his hand swatted away
Charlie Brown: "Some day we will all die, Snoopy."
Snoopy: "But on all other days, we will not."
Few words, but from the comic strip Peanuts, have so succinctly described how life's rejuvenating quality is the most effective distraction from death. We're of course aware about the human brain being so hard-wired towards self-preservation that it's unwilling to believe that it won't be there forever. In any case, it would be so pointless to live, thinking about inevitable death all the time. Not that we'll ever know why we're here in the first place. Being busy just makes it easy. And so, it isn't with any self-doubt that we rehearse answers to the most clichéd question at job interviews: Where do you see yourself five/ten/fifteen years from now?
The 77-year-old lead character (Lalit Bahl) in the film Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) sees himself dead over the next 15 days. It's probably a premonition. Health-wise, he seems okay. It's not like he doesn't fear a road accident, or drowning in the river either. So the brain's essential hard-wiring is very much intact. 'Virakti', or disinterest, has crept into his life.
Since he believes he's set to go, a place he'd prefer to be in - like a lone elephant vanishing from the herd, knowing that he's going to die - is the temple town of Banaras, or more specifically, Mukti Bhawan, where old folk temporarily check in for free, assuming Yamraj will come to fetch them before the 15-day trial run expires. 'Mukti' being eventual salvation, based on the Hindu thought that the body is merely entrapment for the soul, which must be set free, since life in itself is a curse of sorts.
Much like Deepika Padukone as the daughter in Piku (2015), the son Adil Hussain tags along to keep his father happy. Outside of personal memory, I don't know a better medium than movies that can help you confront death head-on - literature's too verbose, distant; photographs, too frozen; and art, too abstract. You'd simply have to be a dead soul not to be moved by the scene where Gogol looks at his dead father's footwear and the empty bed in The Namesake (2006). Or to not get viscerally involved in the final days of the old man in Kurosawa's Ikuru (1952), or the fading couple in Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). This is just to give you few examples from the East. The British, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), on a similar subject, set in Jaipur, was a bit of a bunkum, if you ask me - even more so its sequel.
Mukti Bhawan is a deep meditation on death. But as a film, it's more a tragic-ironic comedy. The beats are more subtle and gentle. Much like the back-ground score, by the brilliant Tajdar Junaid, who I first discovered, and became a fan of, through an Amazon ad. The film's debutant director, Shubhashish Bhutiani, by the way, is all of 25 years old. The writing, like the performances, is minimalist. The visuals, while very Varanasi, isn't obvious exotica for the West - something we also noticed in the equally lovely Masaan (2015). Mukti Bhawan, I'm told, got a 10-minute standing ovation when it travelled to the Venice Film Festival, which is getting fairly common for films from Bombay nowadays - an honour that in the past was mainly reserved for "regional cinema" from India. The film released in Indian theatres last Friday.
So why am I writing about it now? Precisely because we're past the first week. Which is the least significant phase in the life of a film that isn't merely designed to get bums on seats, going through the usual drill of flashing stars (from reviews), placing huge ads, making the big moolah, and scooting after the opening weekend amidst incessant applause that makes you wonder if everything is so great, then what's so great about 'great' anyway.
No, I'm not trying to sound overtly artsy out here. Even if you take popular, crowd-sourced opinion over decades - both, acceptably Hollywood's greatest drama ever (Shawshank Redemption), and Bollywood's most loved comedy (Andaaz Apna Apna), were hardly viewed by audiences when they first released in theatres in the same year (1994). Both lost money. They've been viewed on loop and have mostly topped all top-10 type lists ever since.
Which, sadly, can't be said for a bulk of 'parallel Hindi cinema' like Mukti Bhawan from back in the day.
I spent over three months last year trying to source a copy of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980) for Naseeruddin Shah's retrospective - checking on the director Saeed Mirza, then in the US, who guided me to his cinematographer Virendra Sahni in Hoshiarpur, while the producer NFDC had an obsolete Digi-Beta tape, and the National Film Archives probably had a print that you can't play in theatres anymore.
We're unlikely to deal with this level of apathy in the future. Films like Mukti Bhawan will provide salvation from regular flicks, with libraries like Netflix, Amazon and others, housing them forever. I thought I'd list the theatres the film is currently playing in Bombay. But I'm sure you can find that out, or discover it elsewhere soon. Whether the old man in Mukti Bhawan survives or not - the film, I'm certain, will. Hence this quiet, separate notice. So you can thank us later!
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org