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Found the idea of Mukti Bhawan strangely beautiful, says director Shubhashish Bhutiani

The filmmaker shares his experience of coming across the intriguing subject of a hotel where people check in to await deliverance.

Keyur Seta

Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan was released in India yesterday after having received a lot of acclaim overseas.

Though the film is about death, it is surprisingly light-hearted. Starring Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Palomi Ghosh, it tells the tale of an old man who checks into a hotel in Benares to make sure he dies in the holy town as the belief since ancient times is that anyone who dies there attains salvation, or mukti.

In a telephone conversation with Cinestaan.com, Bhutiani revealed the interesting manner in which he came across this subject and shares his experience of shooting the film. Excerpts:

How did the idea originate?

The idea originated after I visited Benares. Someone had told me about these hotels that existed there, called Mukti Bhawans. I thought it was a very strange thing. Like, you have 15 days to die and then you have to go back home. While the idea was funny, I saw many things. I saw things that were not so happy, because you see people on the verge of dying. But then I went to other Mukti Bhawans as well where I saw people who were just waiting to die. And I thought that was a very strange and beautiful thing. I kind of saw this place wondering how can anyone premeditate their death? How can they know? How can they prepare for it? When I met these people, I was quite surprised.

But one person told me a story of a son who brings his father to this place. That basic thought, that what it must be like for a son to bring his parent there, sparked something in me. And obviously there was an emotional connection to the film. I have also observed this from people around me. I have seen my own parents juggle their lives and responsibilities. So, somewhere, I found a way to tell a story I wanted to tell but through Mukti Bhawan.

Your film has some great performances. How did the casting happen? What was your approach?

Every person is handpicked in the movie. While I had auditioned Lalitji, nobody really had an audition. I really love Adil [Hussain]. He is a great actor but he hadn’t done a role like this where he felt so vulnerable. I thought this would be a great role for him and he has this everyday face. He looks like a lot of people.

I am a big fan of Geetanjali Kulkarni. She is a brilliant actress. She can make any scene come alive. I had seen Lalitji in Titli (2015) and I really loved him. I think he was so scary, domineering, and he has these amazing eyes. I used to write the script keeping his face in mind.

I had met Palomi [Ghosh] at an AR Rahman talk. She asked him how a singer could approach him. Rahman said the singer has to surprise him. So she started singing a Konkani jazz song in front of 500 people. I thought this girl has so much courage. She fit the look as well. When I saw her, I was like, “Done!”

Normally, films about death tend to be philosophical. But you have kept it simple.

It’s not that the film doesn’t have philosophy. The key for me is that I am always telling these characters’ story. I am trying to tell a story. I think I wanted to be as true to the characters as possible.

Every human being has a philosophy, whether they accept it or not. You also have a philosophy in your life. There is a way people lead their lives. Even if it is there, it has to be underneath. If someone is looking for it, it should be like it’s not there.

But it was important for me to capture these characters’ emotions and the kind of situations they are in. Like, what happens to this family? So, it was very much about life and relationships. It’s about how this incident impacts them rather than they start thinking about death. This is because people in the family might not even believe that he is going to die. So, I took that approach. I wanted to tell a very humane story. 

Your film has been well received across the world. It has now been released in India. What are your expectations?

To be honest, I don’t have any expectations. We have worked very, very hard to make the film and even harder to release it. The reviews are coming in and people are starting to see it. The thing that will bring more people is if we can market it and talk about it till the end of time. But at the end of the day, the audience goes and each audience member connects to it and tells other people to go and watch it. That’s the only way a film like this can work. So, I think the film has to stand on its own two feet. Most movies in India depend on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I just hope the film goes through a word-of-mouth and does better each day.

How challenging was it to gain finance for the film?

We made it ourselves. We have our own production house. It was a challenging creative process to make the film in as low a budget as we did. But I don’t think that concerns people because it’s irrelevant how much a movie costs. A movie that costs Rs100 might be the best I have seen. You can’t put a value on these kind of things. I think the most important thing is that we have told the story in the best possible way. 

Your short film Kush made it to the Oscars shortlist. What did you do after that?

After that I moved back to India because I knew I wanted to tell an Indian story; to make a film. And everything I was writing, I was only thinking about India, my family, etc. I moved to Mumbai. It’s not that exciting a story. I did jobs and tried to make a little money to sustain myself. When I decided it was enough, I travelled around India and found this story [Mukti Bhawan]. After the trip, I started writing the script 5-6 months later. 

Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) was also based on the idea of death and based in Benares. Were you concerned that your film might get compared to it?

No, because iconic cities in the world will have many stories from there. For example, San Francisco, LA, New York, London. I consider Varanasi to be an iconic city. One of the oldest cities in the world. I was never concerned [about the comparison] and always wanted to tell my story.

At the same time, I will say that I really liked Masaan as a film. I think it is one of the best films to have come out of India in recent memory. Neeraj Ghaywan, whom I have never met, has done a great job. I loved the film’s music and the performances. If people compare both films, I will never see it as a bad thing because Masaan is a great film. But it’s a very different film. I think whoever sees the two films will know that the city might be the same but the stories are different. 

Have you planned any film after Mukti Bhawan?

I am planning some stuff right now, but it’s very early in the writing process. But I am more excited for this weekend and to see how people react to this film. Once I get mukti from this film after the release, I will get down to my table and start writing.

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