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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Mukti Bhawan review, by Siraj Syed: Pulsating, Soulful, Lively tale, of Death

Mukti Bhawan review, by Siraj Syed: Pulsating, Soulful, Lively tale, of Death

Mukti is Hindi for release or detachment, and Bhawan is home or mansion. Don’t wait too long after Mukti Bhawan is released in the nearest mansion (cinema hall). And do yourself a favour: Don’t die till you have seen this film about death.

A sublime blend of realism and metaphor, Mukti Bhawan is ostensibly the tale of an old man who wants to move to the ‘dying quarters’ in the city of Banaras (Varanasi or Benares), as he has been having recurring dreams of death, and feels that he has outlived his stay on earth. Banaras is probably the holiest town in India for the predominant Hindu population. Waters of the River Ganga (Ganges) are believed to be at their potent best here, and the town is also home to the largest pan-nation cremation grounds. Naturally, it has played host to a horde of films, from Sunghursh to Masaan. As one character poses in this film, “Ganga flows through many places, including Kanpur. So why does it become so special in Banaras that your father wants to go there to die?”

Mukti Bhawan answers this, and many other profound questions, audio-visually and symbolically, while leaving a virtual cornucopia of existential dilemmas unexplained or unanswered, challenging our grey cells to wake up from their lull, and mull over life and death, as never before. Story, screenplay, dialogue, casting, acting, direction, cinematography editing and music—get ready for a master class in the eight elements of film-making. Indian films tend to have different credits for story, screenplay and dialogue, unlike the norm in Western cinema, so let’s begin with the story.

An ominous dream convinces 77-year-old retired school-teacher and writer-poet Dayanand Kumar that his end could be near. He breaks the news to his son Rajiv, knowing he wants to breathe his last in the holy city of Varanasi and end the cycle of rebirth, by attaining salvation. Being the dutiful son that he is, Rajiv is left with no choice but to drop everything and make the journey with his stubborn father.

Daya and Rajiv check into Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) in Varanasi, a guest-house devoted to people who want to die there. But as the days go by, Rajiv struggles to juggle his responsibilities back home and his job as an investment advisor in a government institution, while Daya begins to enjoy his ‘last days’ the hotel. Rajiv gives his father a shot at salvation, but as family bonds are tested, he finds himself torn, and not knowing what he must do to keep his life together.

I reproduce below an item from Al Jazeera, by Showkat Shafi, date-lined 05 December 2013, slightly edited for reference (academic reproduction only; no copyright infringement attempted or averred).

“The holy city of Varanasi in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state is the gateway to salvation, so goes a Hindu belief. Fuelled by such faith, thousands over the last many centuries have travelled to Varanasi, also called Kashi, with a desire to die there. Dying in Varanasi is supposed to break the cycle of death and rebirth. Once one dies in Varanasi, he or she is never reborn, and thus attains salvation.

To house those wanting to die, all sorts of hotels and lodging have sprung up over the years. One such place is Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan. Mukti Bhawan houses only those who are expected to die within 15 days of admission.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, 60, has been managing the Mukti Bhawan for more than four decades. "In a year we get around 800 people from around the country who come to spend their last days in Kashi (another name for Banaras). Some non-residential Indians too have come. On an average, people are allowed to stay for 15 days. For some it could be two or three days or even a month, till they die," he says.

A fee of 20 Indian rupees (less than half a dollar) is charged for those who can pay. It is free for the poor. "We even help the poor to buy wood and other materials needed for cremation. Moreover, after being here for so long, I can easily calculate when a person will die," says Shukla.”

In essence, that is what Mukti Bhawan is all about. From a dining table conversation between three generations of a family living in Kannauj, to the inevitable soul-flight of the 77 year-old patriarch at the banks of the holy river in a dream death, it’s a wondrous, spell-binding journey that is great philosophy, and even greater cinema.

Director Shubhashish Bhutiani pairs with writer Asad Hussain (Laadli Laila, Children of War, Bajrangi Bhaijaan) to pen an almost flawless script, replete with human, humane and humanitarian brush-strokes. Mukti Bhawan is one of the most unpredictably predictable works in cinema. Several expected things happen, but not when you expect them to happen. Other anticipated incidents either do not occur, or occur as transferred epithets. Honour arises out of the most economic visuals or sounds, and never interferes with the terribly serious subject; in fact, it adds just the right dose of irony or sarcasm. Take the desire to be re-born as a kangaroo or a tiger, or the Skype conversation on low-band internet. Bravo!

Take a bow, Shubhashish Bhutiani. Where have you been hiding for the last 26 years? Shubhashish Bhutiani. Okay, oaky, so the Al Jazeera item was aired only in end 2013. "The moment I heard about these hotels in Varanasi, I knew I had to go see it for myself to believe any of it. I did not know what to expect in a place where people check themselves in, to die. Surprisingly, these hotels were all so unassuming—all apart from the city, tucked away in a lane, sometimes very hard to find—each operating on its own set of rules. The real surprise, however, came from the conversations I had with the guests at these hotels and the stories that followed.”

Born in 1991 in Kolkata, India, Shubhashish Bhutiani grew up in a small Himalayan town in India, where he attended Woodstock School. After being heavily involved in theatre, he transitioned from acting to writing and directing and went to learn film-making at the School of Visual Arts, in New York. His thesis film, KUSH, premiered at the 70th Venice Film Festival, where it won the Orizzonti Prize for Best Short Film. KUSH was shortlisted at the 2014 Academy Awards, and has won over 25 awards all over the globe. Now, get ready to add some local statuettes, citations, shawls and cheques to your kitty. Mukti Bhawan is where it all comes together. Yes, I kept thinking about the treatment of death and salvation, in plays like Badal Sircar’s Pagla Ghoda, and films like Citizen Kane, The Ballad of Narayama and Time within Memory (from the country that also gave us Akira Kurosawa); I was also reminded of the works of Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman. Yet, not once did I think of Bhutiani’s finely honed sculpting in terms of plagiarism or cloning.

If you try hard, you might fault Adil Hussain (not likley to be any relation of his ‘surnamesake’ writer of the moview) for a slightly Assamese accent. Otherwise, he sails through like a state-of-the-art submarine in safe waters. Power to you, Adil! After sterling performances in TV serials like Chirion Da Chamba and Tapish, back in the late 80s, I thought we had lost this immensely talented theatre personality called Lalit Behl to relative obscurity. Hold it right there. If Mukti Bhawan is just his second major film role, at age 66, as I gather, then we can only lament what we have been missing. Likewise Navnindra Behl, his wife and co-star, who plays the woman that death cheated out for 18 years after she arrived at Mukti Bhawan, with her loving husband, in a move to breathe their last together, only to see him move on alone.

Gitanjali Kulkarni as Hussain’s wife, Palomi Ghosh as his daughter, and Anil K. Rastogi as Mishraji, the Manager of the death lodge, pitch in with astonishingly nuanced, and finely chiselled, performances. Outstanding support comes from the technical team: Tajdar Junaid’s background music (there are no songs in this 103-minute movie, and had there been any, they would have certainly been hindrances), cinematographers David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney, and editor Manas Mittal. Award-times are a coming!

This small-budget indie is the film, quite like the boat that advertises an Indian bank along its sides as it dots the holiest of Indian rivers,  is THE film of the quarter for me (c’mon, it’s only the beginning of April)! I not only endorse the 10-minute standing ovation it received at Venice, but strongly feel that it deserved at least a minute more. I think I know now how ‘bhaang’ (a local brew quite different from alcohol and almost native to Banaras) tastes, though I have never even seen it, and how death feels, though I am technically alive and have yet to be favoured with self-fulfilling dreams of dying.

Of course there are few reasons for not seeing the film. One could be the fact that you are already dead. Rarely has any film about death been so lively, so pulsating, so soulful.

Rating: **** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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