Two years after it was made, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s 2016 Hindi feature Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) is winning a new set of fans, all the way in Japan. The father-son drama starring Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain has been running successfully in theatres there since its October 27 release and is set enter its seventh week, said the film’s producer, Sanjay Bhutiani.

“This has come to us as a great surprise,” Sanjay Bhutiani, who is also the director’s father, told Scroll.in. “The film’s distributor tells me that even morning shows are 80% to 90% full. They sent me pictures of people in queues on the first day of the film’s release in Tokyo. And in the last three weeks, especially, so many people from Japan have been tweeting to us to tell us how much they loved the film.”

Also starring Geetanjali Kulkarni and Palomi Ghosh, Mukti Bhawan tells the story of 76-year-old Devendra (Behl) who, convinced that his end is near, coerces his son, Rajiv (Hussain), to take him to Varanasi so that he can spend his last days in the city of salvation. An overworked Rajiv is forced to drop everything and live with Devendra in a hotel in the holy city called Mukti Bhawan, which specialises in hosting people until the end of their lives. The 99-minute film was released in India in April 2017 after touring several international film festivals and is also available for streaming on Netflix.

Play
Mukti Bhawan (2017).

Indian films are enjoying growing success in Japan lately, but most releases are mainstream commercial fare, such as Om Shanti Om (2007), 3 Idiots (2009), Ra. One (2011), English Vinglish (2012), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), and Dhoom 3 (2013).

What makes an offbeat film like Mukti Bhawan tick? According to Sanjay Bhutiani, the film seems to have resonated with older audiences in Japan. “The age group of the audience watching the film in Japan is primarily above 50,” he said. “In their tweets, the Japanese say they are amazed to know that Shubhashish was only 24 when he made the film. They have praised the film for its depth, its performances, cinematography, and background music.”

The success of Mukti Bhawan’s Japanese outing is due, in large part, to the efforts of the film’s distributor Yuji Sadai and his company Bitters End Inc, the producer said. In September 2018, a month before the film’s release in Japan, Bitters End Inc flew five Japanese journalists to Varanasi. “They met Shubhashish there, spent a day with him, went on boat rides, witnessed the aartis, attended prayer meetings – while discussing the film,” Sanjay Bhutiani said. “It was a special effort that the distributor took for the film’s pre-release publicity. One of the main theatres in Tokyo, called the Iwanami Hall, which is where the film opened and which is also where it is running for the sixth or seventh week, has quite a big picture of the director with a printed biography attached at the entrance of the theatre.”

Bitters End Inc also waited for the right time to release the film in Japan. “We closed the deal in 2017 but the film was released in Japan only in October 2018, after a 15-16 month-long wait,” Bhutiani said. “The amount of preparation that was done prior to the release of the film is incredible. Almost a year in advance, the distributors asked us for all the material so that it can all be translated in Japanese in a thorough manner. The translator Mika Fuji came to India and spoke to the film’s team and the dialogue writer too before translating the film.”

Inside Iwanami Theatre in Tokyo. Courtesy Sanjay Bhutiani.
Inside Iwanami Theatre in Tokyo. Courtesy Sanjay Bhutiani.

Sadai knew the film would work well in Japan when he saw it at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2017 and had a “good feeling” about the film, Sanjay Bhutiani said. “He told me that it is a very emotionally engaging and spiritual film,” he recalled. “He also told me that the people of Japan are mystified by India, especially Varanasi. A lot of them have visited Banaras particularly because of its spiritual, religious and philosophical connotations. It was very heartwarming and also revelatory for me because I thought these two cultures are very different. In fact, the film’s Japanese title Ganges Ni Kaeru (Return to the Ganges) speaks directly to this connection.”

There’s also a universal quality to the story, which has aided its international success, the producer said. “The film tells a story that happens in every family,” he explained. “Everyone, more or less, goes through a time when their parents and really old and have to be cared for – there are health issues, emotional issues, there is the responsibility to look after them. So, I believe this is a universal subject – which is also the reason why we’ve managed to take the film to 60 countries today.”

At Iwanami Theatre in Tokyo. Courtesy Sanjay Bhutiani.
At Iwanami Theatre in Tokyo. Courtesy Sanjay Bhutiani.