Do we or can we know that “our time has come”? Are we ever truly prepared to die? What is the essence of mukti or salvation? This is the line of enquiry the 2017 film, Mukti Bhawan (Salvation Hotel), sets its viewers on. Screened as part of the Indian Express Film Club at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi on Friday, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s directorial debut dives deep into the idea of mortality, through a father-son relationship with Varanasi, the city of last rites, as the backdrop.
Daya (Lalit Behl), who can sense that his “time has come” after waking up from a nightmare, demands of his son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), the right to breathe his last in the holy city — the only road he sees to salvation. His dutiful, although preoccupied, son obliges and the two embark on a journey to Mukti Bhawan — a rundown guesthouse, infested with rats, where people come to die. At the hotel, Daya regains a sense of community, particularly through his relationship with Vimla, a woman who has been waiting for her last day for 18 years while Rajiv finds himself torn between his duty towards his father and the life he has left back home.
The film, which has bagged laurels at the New York Indian Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival and National Awards, among others, stirred the audiences to dig into their experiences with the loss of loved ones and urged them to answer the questions death poses. In a post-screening session moderated by The Indian Express film critic, Shubhra Gupta, the audience came forward with the stories of relatives who had had premonitions of death. “In my family, many have known that their time has come and they all died natural deaths. No one was suffering from an illness. My grandfather told my father the night before he passed away that he was going to die. We look at it as the person’s realisation that they have done what they needed to through this life,” said Yadunandan Sharma, an audience member.
Pranav Kharbanda, a businessman and film enthusiast, elaborated on the idea of “finishing business” by borrowing from psychiatrist Brian Leslie Weiss’s memoir, Many Lives, Many Masters. “You are born to fulfil roles and learn lessons. Once you feel content with life, you leave irrespective of your age,” he said, adding, “Of all the things in life, death is the only inevitable. Why be scared when it’s the only part of reality that we know for certain?”
Pranjal, a student, felt that Daya took to the road of salvation because “there is a great deal of alienation at an old age. Their emotions are not reciprocated and that, perhaps, leaves them with only death to look forward to.”
Professor Sadiq of the University of Delhi drew parallels between Ghalib’s 18th-century Chirag-i-Dair (Lamps of the Temples) and said, “To me, this film is an extension of the poem. In the poem, just like this film, Ghalib refers to the city of Varanasi as the place where a man’s spirit can find freedom.”