Death, and the awareness of one’s mortality are key themes in Mukti Bhawan. Yet the film is a surprisingly charming father-son story filled with laughter and unexpected moments of tenderness and humanity. Co-writer and director Shubhashish Bhutiani eschews melodrama, opting for everyday realism and understated humor to narrate the story of an over-worked middle-aged man who must take time off from his demanding job to accompany his elderly father to Varanasi to breathe his last.
77-year-old patriarch Dayanand Kumar (Lalit Behl) announces at the dinner table one evening that he believes his time has come and that he wants to travel to the sacred ghats to achieve salvation before he passes. His son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), has a lot on his plate – mounting workload at the office, and preparations to make for his daughter’s wedding – but he agrees to take his father when it’s clear the old man won’t budge.
The ‘Mukti Bhawan’ in the film’s title refers to the ramshackle lodge that the gentlemen check into when they arrive in the holy city; an establishment that houses elderly people at the end of their lives, with a strict 15-day residency limit. Daya settles in immediately, making friends with a kind widow who, as it turns out, has been staying at the lodge for some 18 years. Rajiv, torn between his responsibility to his father and anxious to get back to work, is deeply distressed.
Expectedly the film casts a sharp eye on the strained relationship between father and son, who, as co-inhabitants of a small room in the lodge, are now thrown into the deep end, left to address unresolved issues. Bhutiani reveals a gift for finding beauty in everyday situations, and for creating fleshed-out characters that speak and behave like real people; recognizable folk with relatable conflicts.
Adil Hussain is in excellent form as a man struggling to make sense of his priorities. It’s a fine, measured performance and the actor conveys so much subtext with such little outward expression. Lalit Behl, in the role of his stubborn old father, is very good too, as are Geetanjali Kulkarni andPalomi Ghosh who play Rajiv’s wife and daughter respectively. The acting is top notch, and the performances power the perceptive writing.
“Mukti Bhawan” is as much a celebration of life – complete with all its complexities and paradoxes – as it is a meditation on the harsh realities of getting old and dying. It is both poignant and uplifting.
Beautifully shot and although languidly paced, Bhutiani delivers an evocative drama that has surely got to be one the best films you’ll see this year. I’m going with four out of five.