Ms Representation: Life, death and decisions in Adil Hussain's Mukti Bhawan
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about the 2016 film, Mukti Bhawan
I recently watched the 2016 film, Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation in English), starring Adil Hussain, directed by Shubhashish Bhutian. It is a moving, gentle, small film about life’s bigger questions. Though the film is essentially about the relationship between a father and son, and life and death, the women in the film — and there’s three strong ones at its heart — have my heart.
Rajiv’s (Adil) father, Daya (Lalit Behl) is moving to Varanasi as he wants to pass away there. Every year thousands of devout elderly Hindus reach the city, as passing away there, they believe, guarantees mukti or salvation. Daya sets into a motion a quiet, but disruptive change in the lives of Rajiv, his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh). At the hotel of sorts where Daya will live the rest of his days out, he meets the most poignant, and in my opinion, the best character in Mukti Bhawan, Vimla (Navindra Behl). Some of the most philosophical lines in the film are not mouthed by Daya but Vimla. Including her version of Maine Pyar Kiya’s famous lines, “Dosti ka ek usool hai madam, no sorry, no thank you.” Vimla eases Daya in to this state of waiting. She knows best because she’s been in this hotel waiting for death for 18 long years.
Vimla’s acceptance and matter-of-factness of what would be seen as tragic, especially for a woman in our culture is striking, and is a very accurate portrayal of the kind of quiet courage we see in so many women in real life. She and her husband moved to this place to bid adieu to the world together and he passed away quickly. It also makes us think about the lives of women and their place in our families, when Vimla says, “After he passed away I had no one to go back to.” While on some level this may sound romantic, and even ascetic, hidden inside is her internalised view that elderly, widowed women are of no value to our society. Vimla and Daya’s quick friendship though in Mukti Bhawan is utterly charming.
Geetanjali Kulkarni plays Lata so well that it feels like one is watching someone live her life in front of the camera. Be it the matter-of-fact manner in which, while she moisturises herself dressed in a nightie, she asks Rajiv when he’ll be back – he is going to be with his father in Varanasi until he passes away. And how she tells him off when he praises someone else’s tea. Or when she is ‘helpless’ as her daughter takes on a job and calls off the wedding.
While Rajiv is away, Sunita has made up her mind to follow her heart, find a job, and call off the arranged marriage. Over video call, wife and daughter announce this to Rajiv, who is angry. Sunita’s retort that she’ll pay her father back when her father says, “The cards are already printed,” subverts the argument and exasperates Rajiv.
Sunita and Vimla’s antics as they consume bhang with Daya, is delightful and is among the best scenes in this lovely film.
Mukti Bhawan is a meditative film about death and men. And yet, it is also as much about its women, who come alive and make it all worthwhile.