Thithi and Mukti Bhawan would make an excellent double bill. Both are indie comedy-dramas – even if Thithi, in both style and process, is indie-er than Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut feature (not to mention most other Indian films in recent memory). Both immerse themselves in the traditions and idiosyncracies of a local culture. Above all, both are films about death – Bhutiani’s about an impending demise, Ram Reddy’s about the aftermath of one – that find more gentle humour than morbidity in the subject.
In a scene that’s mildly reminiscent of Don Corleone’s death in the garden in The Godfather (I may be reading too much into things, but oranges seem to equal death in both films), Daya (Lalit Bahl) dreams of chasing after his younger self as his mother’s voice calls out to him. Taking this as a sign, he informs his family – son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), daughter in law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) – that he believes his time on earth is up, and that he’d like to live out his last days in Varanasi. Accompanied by the very reluctant Rajiv, he checks into a bare-bones hotel called Mukti Bhawan – literally, “place of salvation”.
There is actually a Mukti Bhawan that exists in Varanasi, its guests all nearing the end of their lives. If you find the idea morbid (as I did going in) then you might be pleasantly surprised (as I was) by the film’s gently comic, highly empathetic attitude towards this strange, sad arrangement. Instead of looking depressed or terrified, the inhabitants of the hotel in the film have a lightness to them – it’s as though the tough part was deciding to come here, and now that they have, their minds are at ease. Even as Rajiv, an insurance salesman, frets and fusses, Daya joins the old-timers for convivial yoga sessions, newspaper readings and after-dinner TV-watching.
Mukti Bhawan is quieter than most films, indie or otherwise (Tajdar Junaid’s pleasant, if rather typically Hindie, score is used sparingly). Even with death approaching, life must go on, and Bhutiani seems fascinated by the sort of mundane, everyday stuff that directors usually skip. For what seems like a 30-minute stretch, all we’re doing is watching Daya and Rajiv bicker and negotiate daily tasks like cooking for themselves (throughout the film, food is used a bridge between characters). There are moments when I wished there was more to quicken the pulse, but the careful advancement of plot is made palatable by some wonderful character sketches, like the gruff hotel manager (Anil K. Rastogi, very droll) and the widow Vimla (Navnindra Behl), who’s been staying there for 18 years, and whom Daya strikes up a friendship with.
Bhutiani, who’s also written the screenplay (dialogue by Asad Hussain), has a knack for undercutting potentially heavy emotional moments. A parting is made farcical through the worship of a disinterested-looking calf, and a teary family fight is rendered hilarious by a faltering net connection. There’s also some very effective doubling: one son who calls his mother during mealtimes, another who can’t find time to talk with his father while they’re eating; two characters who, for different reasons, stopped writing poetry.
As opposed to the moments when the camera goes in search of some detail, I felt this film was at its best when it stayed stationary and allowed a scene to unfold. One such long take comes late in the film. When it begins, there are two sleeping dogs in the frame. One of them wakes up, scratches itself. A goat enters, exits, reappears a little later. None of this is in any way “important”. At the same time, I have no recollection of what was being discussed in this scene. But I remember the dogs and the goat, just as I remember other stray moments from the film: Lata searching for a subtle way of asking her husband whether his father’s premonitions of death come with a date attached, and the catch in Behl’s voice as Daya recalls his son’s masoom (innocent) poems.