The liberation of the corporeal self in the city of salvation – Mukti Bhawan handles heavyweight material with a deceptively light touch. The result is a moving, if often stilted, chronicle of a father-son relationship that is tested in Varanasi, the open-air crematorium that has captured the imagination of many filmmakers over the decades.
Varanasi’s association with death has been featured in films as wide-ranging as Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito (1956) and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). In Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut feature, the ancient city emerges as a minor character in its own right, one that provides a spot for reflection on matters both worldly and otherworldly. Except for a few boat rides down the Ganga, Bhutiani chooses to stick to alleyways and interior spaces. The modesty suits the film’s understated tone and mild air of poignancy, and is especially effective in the scenes between Devendra (Lalit Behl) and his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain).
Their relationship is loving and respectful but also testy and resentful. Devendra’s time is up – or so he thinks. Convinced that he is going to die, the elderly widower barrels Rajiv into a trip to Mukti Bhawan in Varanasi, a hospice-like hotel where the elderly wait out their final days. Rajiv is reluctant since he has work targets to meet. But the real reason for his anxiety lies elsewhere – he is unable to confront the inevitable, and is almost disappointed when it appears that Devendra isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Varanasi is no Samarra, where death arrives by appointment. As Rajiv and Devendra wait seemingly endlessly, old wounds are picked and new ones emerge. Rajiv’s sparky daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) tests her father’s patience. His wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) wants the family to return home. Devendra makes demands of his son that occasionally tip into cruelty.
Overseeing the 102-minute family drama are Mishra (Anil K Rastogi), the wise hotel owner who appears to be a messenger of Yama on earth, and Vimla (Navnindra Behl), a long-staying guest who strikes up a friendship with Devendra. (There’s a separate film waiting to be made on Varanasi’s well-oiled death economy, with its pragmatic priests, funeral arrangements, and informal hospices.)
While Bhutiani’s screenplay is alive to nuance, the first-time filmmaker often steps back from complexity after hinting at it. The restraint that marks the father-son bond manages to fleetingly suggest that in waiting for his death, Devendra is parasitically sucking the life out of his son. The thought floats over the gently paced film, and had it been confronted rather than alluded to, Mukti Bhawan might have made a stronger statement about the complexity of family dynamics.
The astute casting and spare writing give the actors enough space to disappear into their roles. Adil Hussein, with his stooped back and pot belly, is very effective as Rajiv, and is especially moving in his interactions with Lalit Behl, who was memorable as a fearsome patriarch in his son Kanu Behl’s debut feature Titli in 2014. Palomi Ghosh shines as the bubbly and loving Sunita, whose uncomplicated bond with her grandfather underlines Rajiv’s emotional repression. He does let go at one point, and it’s the movie most genuine, sob-inducing moment.