By Aneesha Bangera
The curious thing about death is that, when you talk about it, you’re often actually talking about life. This idea lies at the heart of Shubhashish Bhutiani’s directorial debut, “Mukti Bhawan” – the Dharamshala International Film Festival 2017’s opening night film.
The 77-year-old protagonist Daya has a recurring dream in which a voice is calling to him. He subsequently declares to his family that his time is nearly over and the burden of his decision to check into Mukti Bhawan – a hotel in Varanasi to where people travel to spend their last few days, falls to his son Rajeev. What unfolds is a beautiful story of a family learning to cope with death—a process that leads them to explore their relationships with each other and with life.
“I was travelling around India some years ago when I heard about these hotels, or bhawans, in Varanasi where people go to die,” says Shubhashish. Intrigued by the idea, he visited one and heard about a man who had been forced to take his father there. The story stayed with him for years before he wrote “Mukti Bhawan”.
The film handles this somewhat delicate subject with a measured restraint and quietness, never slipping into drama or cliché, despite the theme and setting. “Each time I make a film, I feel as though I’m starting from scratch,” continues the director. “For Mukti Bhawan, a more contained approach seemed right, but this doesn’t mean that my next film will be the same. Every film carries its own rhythm.”
Shubhashish seems to have tapped into the perfect rhythm here. Understated humour is woven with touching moments of humanity and emotional depth, revealing the tensions and complexities of the father-son relationship.
Ironically, Daya comes alive at Mukti Bhawan, nurtured by new friendships and the idea of waiting for salvation. Meanwhile, Rajeev is forced to confront his own faults and fears, torn between caring for his father and returning home to his wife, daughter and job.
“Mukti Bhawan” chronicles a turning point for its characters. “But the change is internal,” says Shubashish. “The characters aren’t changing the world like superheroes. And yet, they are superheroes in their own way.”
Staying true to the story with limited resources was a challenge, but a young crew that was invested in the story created a sense of family and an atmosphere of learning. “Instead of taking taxis, we would travel by boat to the location each morning and night,” Shubhashish adds. “It was a really nice way to begin and end a day. The first journey was defined by preparation and anticipation, while the return was a period for reflection. Making the film was truly a rewarding experience in so many ways.”
Discussing DIFF, the director – who grew up in the Himalayas – says, “I was really honoured when Ritu and Tenzing asked us to open the festival. I was there last year, and it’s truly one of the best festivals I’ve been to – the warmth, the location, the food and, most importantly, the incredible people who run it. The way people come together to watch films at DIFF is a beautiful thing.”
Shubhashish was also on the selection jury of this year’s DIFF Film Fellows Programme. “I’m looking forward to seeing more filmmakers emerge from the region,” he comments. “I’m so happy they have this opportunity to develop their skills and tell their stories.”
Aneesha is a freelance writer and editor who grew up in Madras and lives in Bangalore. A graduate of journalism school, she has worked at a newspaper, an educational non-profit, and a boutique and gallery. She was part of the DIFF team in 2014.
Don’t miss DIFF’s opening night on November 2, 2017. The screening of Mukti Bhawan will be followed by a Q&A session with Adil Hussain, who won a National Award for his role in the film. You can get tickets for the event here.