Meenakshi Shedde: Laughing at death
Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) will be one of the best films you will see this year. I don't say this easily; I've seen it four times already
Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) will be one of the best films you will see this year. I don't say this easily; I've seen it four times already. Watch this movie with your parents. This wonderful film in Hindi, a delicate, pensive, very funny reflection on death - and life - is directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani, who is just 25. Such a mature and philosophical debut feature, set in small town Varanasi, augurs well for the future of Indian film. The film won the CICT-UNESCO Award at the Venice Film Festival, and two National Film Award Special Mentions, for the film, as well as for actor Adil Hussain. Bhutiani studied film at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and his previous short, Kush, had also won the Orizzonti Prize for Best Short Film at Venice. Mukti Bhawan is produced by Sajida Sharma, Sanjay Bhutiani and Shubhashish Bhutiani.
Stills from the film Mukti Bhawan, directed by Shubhasish Bhutani
The film opens with Dayanand Kumar (a superb Lalit Behl), 77, having a recurring dream in which his mother is calling him, and knows his time has come. He insists on going to Varanasi to die, and his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain, terrific), accompanies him to Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) there. You're allowed to stay only 15 days, says Mishraji (Anil Rastogi, very good). Thus begins a game of hide-and-seek with death, which eventually liberates not only Dayanand, but also Rajiv, his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), all fine actors.
The hotel is filthy, with cockroaches, dank rooms, the groans of people dying, the stench of funeral pyres by the Ganga — and you have to cook your own food. Yet, Dayanand, otherwise treated as a retired family member, now blossoms. He enjoys bhang lassi, makes new friends, including Vimala (the outstanding Navnindra Behl); they go for boat rides, laugh a lot, and OMG, even sleep together - they just doze off one afternoon, as simple and natural as that, while Rajiv has a heart attack. So, someone who came to die, finds a new life. Vimala gets one of the best lines in the film: she is jealous that she has been there 18 years, while someone else got to die in just two years. Here, some embrace death as a friend they haven't met, setting it apart from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or even Ship of Theseus.
The film playfully explores time. If you're allowed to stay only 15 days, how do you know when you'll die? Dayanand has accepted his time has come, so he is relaxed, while Rajiv, uncertain how long he must extend his office leave, is going insane. Long-buried father-son tensions explode and are resolved: finality brings forgiveness.
As is often the case, Dayanand is far more modern than Rajiv. With his tacit encouragement, his granddaughter Sunita cancels her wedding and takes up a job, leaving Rajiv apoplectic.
Above all, the film is very, very funny. As Dayanand's time comes, and the residents gather for funeral bhajans, he begs, "Thoda sur mein gaayein."
A special shout out for the tech credits: evocative cinematography by Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler, effectively discreet music by Tajdar Junaid, taut editing by Manas Mittal, an excellent screenplay by Bhutiani and outstanding dialogue by Asad Hussain.. You're watching a film about death and laughing all the time - bravo. Unmissable!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.