Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mukti Bhawan

(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its March 2017 issue. It is reproduced here in full, but footnotes have been stripped off.)

Many articles, documentaries and news reports have covered Varanasi as the chosen place to die for Hindus. Some of these have also chosen to focus on individual stories and the guesthouses where the dying come to wait for death in this city which may guarantee them liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Shubhashish Bhutiani's film Mukti Bhawan (international title: Hotel Salvation), the young Indian director's first feature-length film, adds a work of fiction to this growing field of inquiry. The film, however, doesn't add much to the subject of Varanasi and its guesthouses: in this respect, it merely enlarges upon Al Jazeera's 2011 made-for-TV documentary "Salvation House" (aired as part of Witness). Mukti Bhawan instead treats Varanasi, and the age-old struggle of man's preparation for death, as mere backdrops, focussing instead on the relationship between a father who has not entirely accepted his forthcoming death and hence needs Varanasi, and his son who navigates the inhibitions of filial piety and the restrictions of the milieu in which he was raised.

As the film progresses, the father becomes more amenable to the idea of death. Likewise, the son—who initially resents his father's easily bought liberation while he (the son) remains ensconced not only in the epic cycle of births and deaths, but also the grinding middle-class struggles of this life—also later finds peace. As the father attains liberation, the son is also brought to his own, coming to terms with his unspoken grudges, his repressed aspirations and his present. In this respect, on the back of a brilliant chemistry between the father-son duo of Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, Mukti Bhawan is a lovely little movie, and adds another feather to the cap of the current crop of independent Indian cinema. However, it could have been more thought-provoking and touching if it had enlarged on the backdrop of Varanasi itself and sought to understand how one merges into many, and many into one, in the unique land that is India.

This thought reminds me of another TV show, specifically the first episode of the famous series Bharat Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India). This 53-part series—which was written and directed by Shyam Benegal and aired in 1988—is based on Jawaharlal Nehru's book of the same name and covers a 5000-year-period of Indian history and culture, finishing with independence in 1947. Toward the end of its first episode, there is a clever montage of close-ups of men, women and children, reflecting the stunning diversity of Indian faces and undermining the homogenisation of Indian history and opinion. These close-ups are interspersed with medium shots of small groups of people: women in a field, almost-naked boys jumping into a river for a joyful bath, scenes from a bazaar, boys playing marbles. The montage finishes with a shot of a huge crowd—one of diverse faces and occupations, ethnicities and religions, viewpoints and histories—but whose members are all moving on a busy square, as if one. (Such a scene is common on many of India's streets.) Bharat Ek Khoj beautifully illustrates how multiple histories have shaped, and continue to shape, India, by showing the country not as an abstract idea, but as a nation composed of every single Indian. Diversity, with abounding fertility, lies at the heart of India's uniqueness and has allowed it to remain a strong nation and a weak state, in spite of sporadic (and continuing) efforts to the contrary. The unity of India thus does not come from a common language, or common rituals, or a common history or political system; instead, it comes from partaking. It comes from shared, and acknowledged, histories; from shared, and swapped, philosophies; from having to communicate (all the more effectively) through the eyes, thanks to a lack of a common tongue. The scope for violence is automatically reduced because my word cannot be the word.

Returning to Mukti Bhawan—in focussing very narrowly on the father-son relationship, Bhutiani borrows heavily from Western idioms of filmmaking and forgets the organic whole from which these characters sprout: while the film is a good study of father-son relations, the context goes missing. A Hollywood film (at least one set in the West) which mostly placing its characters at the centre of the earth wouldn't go amiss for treating its subjects in this manner, as detachment and individualism reign in the West. However, India is not like this: it is the land of dharma ("righteous duty," as in a tiger's dharma is to hunt for prey) where a person lives with several dharmas, which are not always easy to reconcile. A man is not merely a son: he is also a father, a husband, a neighbour, an employee, a tourist, a stranger, a human, and all these roles come with different dharmas, which themselves also vary at different times. Bhutiani's film shows Adil Hussain's character, the son, to be in all these roles, yet fails to interconnect them, as Varanasi—or Kashi (the "City of Light," which is the ancient name for Varanasi and still preferred in the spiritual context)—is missing in his film. A clue lies in the film's very name: while in Hindi, Mukti Bhawan simply means "Liberation House," the international title is Salvation Hotel, which is a mistranslation on several counts. Hindus do not have the concept of salvation (and it is a gross simplification to translate "moksha," of which mukti is a variation, as "salvation"); liberation actually occurs a step prior to moksha in the cycle and a place which does not charge for accommodation can hardly be called a "hotel."

Dharma is the very opposite of the Western concept of law: there is no "thou shalt." The flexibility of this philosophy is what has enabled India to retain its diversity so far, when every other land in this world has failed in that respect. Though Mukti Bhawan is a promising debut for Bhutiani, his film also reflects the current trend towards the Westernisation of Indian cinema, which borrows Western mores and ways of narrating a story, and even Western optics themselves, thus distorting India more and more through borrowed glasses. The film is also a reflection of modern Indian society, which, through ignorance primarily, has started to lean towards law and away from dharma: a society that has started to take the same path, in other words, that China took several decades ago by crushing the Confucian and Daoist elements of its culture in favour of a ruthless consumerism that does not seek, or care for, harmony. It would be considered an irony by some that a film that takes a very spiritual Indian ritual as its core theme, one that even appears in the title, constrains the Indian experience by giving it the colour of one story: forgetting that there is no one story, at least not in India, only many welded stories.

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