I would say it’s a rather uncanny coincidence. Mukti Bhawan is a film that I had wanted to write about for a long time. Just as I had gathered my thoughts and was close to penning the piece, I heard about the sad demise of actor Lalit Behl, who essayed the role of patriarch Dayanand Kumar in the film. The veteran actor-filmmaker passed away due to COVID complications on April 23.
As I pray for the eternal peace of the departed soul, I take a humble step to share my thoughts on this brilliant piece of cinema.
It was the fall of 2016. After being premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Mukti Bhawan received a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. The depth of the subject matter and the delicate sensitivity with which it was handled moved the viewers immensely. Over the years, Mukti Bhawan has been showered with worldwide critical acclaim and has been screened at several film festivals. Its most recent entry is into this April’s London Indian Film Festival.
Glimpses of the story
Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his family. A dream he sees implants the idea in his mind that his days on earth are numbered. He announces at the dinner table that he wants to attain salvation and spend the final stage of his life in the sacred ghats of Varanasi. Rajiv is at the crossroads where he needs to balance between his office work and making preparations for his daughter’s wedding. Yet he carries out his father’s wishes and takes Daya who is relentless and stubborn and won’t hear otherwise.
‘Mukti Bhawan’ is the lodge that Daya and Rajiv check into. An establishment housing elderly people, it lays down the rule which allows a maximum of 15 days of residency. Daya is at ease, settling in comfortably. He finds companionship in Vimla, a widow who has lived there for a long stretch since her husband’s death. Rajiv performs his duties as the obedient son, but he has the constant pressure mounting over him to return home and to his work.
Within the walls of this dilapidated building come alive the differences between the father and the son that have so long remained buried. Are Daya and Rajiv able to make peace and forget the past? And does Daya attain the salvation that he so passionately desired? These are the answers to look for as the film takes us through an emotional experience layered with sensitive humane nuances.
The film mirrors reality through a script that is top-notch
The theme of ageing parents is not new in the Indian film diaspora and has been addressed earlier. But what sets Mukti Bhawan on a level of its own is its realistic dimension. The story unfolds spontaneously with the absence of overt melodrama.
Although the film steps into a philosophical domain by talking about life and death, there are light-hearted moments sandwiched between serious happenings. These scenes allow the narrative to flow with a naturalistic, unencumbered ease. There is, for instance, a scene in which Daya’s granddaughter jokingly tells him that she is glad that she would have a room all by herself when he leaves the house. Again a comic moment surfaces when Daya falls ill and a bhajan is sung in anticipation of his death. Unable to bear the cacophony, he asks the singers to sing in tune.
A stellar star cast contributes its utmost
Mukti Bhawan belongs to the duo of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, who deliver their master strokes. Their interactions and conversations elevate the father-son relationship to a point where the scenes feel like those from real life and not just reel moments.
Behl is extremely convincing as the cantankerous father making inconsiderate demands. Anyone dealing with aged parents can easily relate to those times when he regresses to a state of childlike obstinacy, a behavior not too uncommon and seen sometimes among the elderly.
Adil Hussain’s portrayal of Rajiv fetched him a National Award, and it’s an accolade rightfully deserved. What is distinctive about the actor is that he moulds himself effortlessly into any character he plays in his films. The role of Rajiv ranks high in the list of his outstanding performances. Anger, sadness, and frustration encircle him as he has to shoulder the responsibilities of a son, a husband, and a father. Hussain displays these varied emotions with unbelievable finesse.
The female actors in the film also show promise. Geetanjali Kulkarni as Rajiv’s wife and Palomi Ghosh as the independent-minded daughter make their presence felt by contributing their fair share. Navindra Behl as Daya’s companion strikes a chord with her warmth and kind disposition.
The film celebrates the parental bond with a heartwarming panache
Mukti Bhawan is a testimony to the genius and maturity of director Subhashis Bhutiani, who embarked on this project in his twenties. Life and death are the two major strands in the web of human existence, and the film delineates this truth with fine artistry. Bhutiani weaves into this reality a story of human ties that raises questions and opens a window for reflection.
Without any moralizing, the film leaves a note, and it does so rather subtly and wisely. There are those unspoken words that contribute to the uniqueness of the narrative. While celebrating the parental bond, the film focuses on a father-son relationship which is seemingly imperfect. The bumps and jolts do not make the journey a breezy ride. But there emerges a beautiful realization that even within these misunderstandings, there is still ample room to make amends, allow forgiveness, and thereby preserve the sanctity of this timeless relationship.
(This article was published in India Currents )