Of the many things Varanasi is known for, so-called salvation homes that cater to the terminally ill best exemplify Hinduism’s holiest city. Drawing from the belief that people who die there allow their soul to escape a cycle of death and rebirth, many who seek ‘mukti’ check into these accommodations to wait for death.
Shubhashish Bhutiani’s “Mukti Bhawan” (titled “Hotel Salvation” in English) provides a window into the lives of these people and their loved ones. The movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and releases in Indian theatres on April 7, tells the story of a son who takes his father to die in Varanasi. Bhutiani spoke to Reuters about the film.
How did you come up with the idea for “Mukti Bhawan”?
A: I had moved back to India after studying in the U.S. and working at a few jobs. I wanted to travel around the country, so I backpacked across India and my last stop was Varanasi. I had heard about these…I am just going to use the word hotel even though they are not really hotels. In the local language they call them bhawans. They have many qualities of a hotel and the word works for translation purposes.
My entry point into this world was just from a place of fascination. When I went there, it was not with the agenda of making a film, but just to see a place that was so unique. I became touched by people’s stories of why they come there and what this place means for them and one particular incident stayed with me, of a son who brings his father to die there. That compelled me to write something around it.
What does the film say about the idea of ‘mukti’?
A: It is certainly not something that every character in the film believes in. Only the patriarch of the family is firm about this belief. His son (Adil Hussain’s character) is too caught up in his own life to think about these things – it is how we in the cities are. I don’t see this as a religious or a spiritual film. It is told from a human perspective. It deals with modern times and where we stand with our traditions and how it impacts us. It brings out humor too, because who knows when death will come? It brought a smile to my face – these people who are predicting their death. But how can you know really?
Is humor an essential element of the story?
A: It is not a conscious effort as much as a feeling I had. If you have a hotel that is giving you 15 days to die, I think that is funny. Someone is putting a time limit on that, when you can never know. I have tried for most of the humour to come out of the situations itself.
Can you talk about your choice of cast, especially Lalit Bahl who we haven’t seen after his brilliant performance in “Titli”?
A: He got this role because I saw him in “Titli” and I was looking for someone intimidating. I still auditioned him and all, but he was always in my mind when I was writing the film.
Given the number of senior actors in your film, did you feel your age (he’s 25) got in the way?
A: I don’t know… I do have some experience. And I also see directing as a job. My job is to get the best out of everybody and make the film that I set out to make. I try to focus on that more and what I want to do. I don’t focus on the position.
Did you shoot at an actual mukti bhawan?
A: There are two-three mukti bhawans in Banaras and I wanted to adopt several characteristics of each of them. They all had different elements that I loved. One was by the river, one had a rule board of what the guests could and could not do; one was livelier, where people sat in the courtyard in the evenings. Also, I wanted control of the space and didn’t want to disturb anybody. If I went to a real place, they are doing their thing.
You didn’t want to get in the way of death?
A: Yeah, you could say that (laughs). But we found a place that fit all our requirements – it was by the river, had a courtyard and we could make our own Mukti Bhawan out of it. That is where we shot.