Mumbai, 05 Apr 2017 16:18 IST
Bhutiani tells a simple story effectively, aided simply by the visual elegance of his camera and the high quality of acting at his disposal.
The Greeks had the river Styx. The ancient Christians came up with purgatory. India has its Benares. With Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation, Shubhashish Bhutiani delves into the purgatorial nature of the life of millions waiting for death in the city.
The story begins with Dayashankar Sharma (Lalit Behl), a retired schoolmaster, dreaming of symbols that indicate death. He makes up his mind to die in Benares, the focal point of Hindu salvation. The lives of his son Rajeev (Adil Hussain), daughter-in-law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and soon-to-be wed granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) are upset in the wake of this titanic decision.
Hell bent, Daya finds his way to Mukti Bhawan in Benares, where he is given 15 days to live, and die. While Rajeev waits for his father to die, with every passing day Daya finds himself loving life at his own pace.
It is very difficult to tell a story about death without philosophising, turning bleak, or injecting wanton humour into it. Bhutiani manages the task by telling the story simply and effectively. There are no bells and whistles that distract you from the crux of the story — the tiresome wait for death.
Bhutiani was inspired to write the film after reading about these real life purgatory hotels that exist in the city of Benares. Through the film, he manages to delve into the world and open a microcosmic universe that revolves around the business of death. However, this life is neither bleak nor depressing, but rather as colourful as life itself. Bhutiani's camera strolls through the streets of the town like a flaneur revealing up a new world at every turn. The only drawback is that sometimes the visuals seem like they are drifting away from the narrative.
The film is lifted by the quality of acting throughout. As the impatient son struggling with the languorous nature of his father's wait for death, Hussain delivers a masterclass. His restrained performance, and the final emotional breakthrough, makes for a thrilling watch. Behl is pitch perfect as the grand old man dragging the entire family through the circus. He shifts between grumpy, mischievous and innocent moods that make his character all the more endearing and real. The interaction between father and son adds spice to the film and its story.
Kulkarni and Ghosh as the wife and daughter bring in the more complicated element of Rajeev's life. The brevity of the dialogues allows the actors to express more visually making for a wonderful watch.
There are also some scene stealers. The interaction between Daya and Vimla (Navnindra Behl) who has spent 18 years waiting for death, makes for a lovely and sensitive denouement. It also sheds light on the lives of the elder generation in this millennium, people who have been left trailing in the wake of a restless and hurried life. It is the whole universe of characters, eccentric, interesting and real, that add to the magic of the Benares experience.
Though efficient in its narrative, the film does sag a bit in the end. This, of course, is inevitable for a film whose conclusion is already known. A more compact script might have livened up the film a bit. Some scenes feel a bit unnecessary, and bring down the pace of the film.
Despite the flaw, there are very few things to complain about Bhutiani's first venture as a director. He manages to finish the film in the same vein as the city of Benares, a celebration of life.
One of Emily Dickinson's most repeated poem reads 'Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me'. It is the theme of Bhutiani's film about the unstoppable nature of life contrasted by the languorous, whimsical arrival of death.