Death is a recurrent theme in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s short films and debut feature. Mukti Bhawan tells the story of a middle-aged man (Adil Hussain) who takes his ailing father (Lalit Behl) to the Mukti Bhawan guesthouse in Varanasi. Guests can book a room for a maximum of 15 days and wait for the inevitable. The two men find themselves in an unusual situation when they have to spend two weeks together – one is waiting for another to die even as an emotional bond that never existed before develops between father and son. Mukti Bhawan was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016 and has since travelled to several film festivals across the world. The movie will be released in India on April 14.
Bhutiani made two short films while studying filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In The Star (2012), a father copes with the accidental death of his 10-year-old son. In Kush (2013), a Sikh boy faces a threat to his life during a school trip after riots follow the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Kush was in the long list of 10 live-action shorts competing for the final five nominations in the Oscar race of 2014. The The 25-year-old director spoke about his close brush with the Academy awards and the worldwide acclaim he has received for Mukti Bhawan.
How did the story of ‘Mukti Bhawan’ take shape?
Two years after my short film Kush, I wanted to backpack, so I travelled from Kerala to Varanasi. I had heard of some guesthouses in Varanasi where people check in to die.
That’s a great one-liner for a story.
Yes, so I was curious. That’s how I went to a few guesthouses around the city and the ghats and met the people living there. I spent time listening to their stories. It’s in one of these guesthouses that I heard a story about a man who brought his father to spend the last few days of his life.
When I heard the story, I began talking to my friends, discussing the guesthouse and telling them how strange and captivating the idea was. I saw their reactions and observed different points of views. Then I began developing it into a story to see if I was answering all the questions that we raised in our discussions.
Was it easy to sell the story to a film producer?
Actually, it was easy to find producers for the film as I worked with the same team from Kush. Also, if you think about it, what is the one-line idea of the film? Checking into a hotel to die. It is a fascinating thought to put across. The smart thing is to budget it since we are working with independent producers. The challenge is to complete it within a fixed time with little funds.
What about the casting? Did you face any challenges in assembling your actors for the lead roles?
Apart from Adil Hussain, who is well-known, the rest of the cast was relatively new. I had seen Geentanjali Kulkarni’s work in Court. Lalit Behl is from a theatre background. I happened to see Palomi Ghosh [the lead in the Konkani musical Nachom-ia Kumpasar] sing a song at an event and decided to cast her right away.
Did you fear that the film would be to ‘Masaan’, which is also set in Varanasi and deals with death and bereavement?
Not really, we are telling a very different story, so it did not even cross our minds.
So no shots of burning ghats and long conversations in boats?
You will have to see the film. It is nothing like Masaan.
You made ‘Kush’ when you were in film school. How did it reach the Academy awards?
Kush was my graduation project when I was studying at the School of Visual Arts. A teacher at my school once told me a story about a Sikh child on a bus trip with his classmates. It was about his journey back home to safety during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The story had moved me and I always wanted to turn it into a film. I shot the film in Mumbai.
After it won the Orizzonti Prize for Best Short Film at the Venice International Film Festival in 2013, we sent it to the Academy Awards where it was long-listed in the live-action shorts category.
Were you expecting to be nominated?
See, the film had won an award and it had begun travelling to other film festivals, receiving a lot of positive attention. Even then, it did come as a surprise when it got long-listed.
Did you feel ‘Kush’ could lead to a break in Hollywood?
For me, just to have reached that point with my first short film was a big achievement. I had not expected it. I had not seen the films of my co-nominees. When your film reaches that platform, obviously you want it to win, but there’s not much to lose too. I am just starting out, and it inspires me to do better work. I was disappointed only for my family, who really wanted it more than me.
Had you won an Academy award, would you have made ‘Mukti Bhawan’?
I don’t know what could have happened. I love writing and making films and that’s all I am happy doing, being on a film set.