Mukti Bhawan started from stories that people had to share: Shubhashish
The last time that I spoke to this young filmmaker was way back in 2013. He was all of 22 and his first short film Kush had just been awarded the Best Film at the 70th Venice International Film Festival. When we meet again in 2016, he has just returned from Venice where his first feature, Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), was the only Indian film to premiere at the festival. The film also won the UNESCO award for “the values finely expressed on the importance of family, time passed together in respect and with love, and those values of human rights which we all share”.
Speaking to Shubhashish Bhutiani gives you an insight into the minds of the current breed of extremely talented filmmakers that we have in our country. Our conversation was filled with anecdotes from the making of his feature, his experience at Venice and more interestingly, what was it that drove him to make a film around a place devoted to people who choose to come and die there because that is believed to help them attain moksha (salvation).
How has this journey from your short film Kush to your first feature length film Mukti Bhawan been?
When I made Kush, I was still studying filmmaking in New York. After college, it took me a while to make a decision (about what I wanted to do) but I kept writing all through that time. And everything that I was writing was based in India. So I made a conscious choice to come back to India, so that I could keep making films. After coming here, I worked at a few places to gain experience. But then came a point when I wanted to go back to doing something on my own. I also decided to travel for a bit because travel really inspires you. I did a three-month backpacking trip across India and the last place on my trip happened to be Varanasi.
I had heard about Mukti Bhavan in Varanasi and since I was there, I decided to go and see the place. And there was something about the place that stayed in my mind. Initially I never thought of it as a film. I continued writing other things until one day, when I finally decided to start writing Mukti Bhawan. I heard about a program where they were looking for young filmmakers to make a film that they could support and develop. I saw it as a great opportunity for this kind of a movie. As a young filmmaker, one definitely needs support. And this felt like the right path to follow.
What was this program and how was the film selected for it?
This is a relatively new program called the Biennale College – Cinema by La Biennale di Venezia where they select young filmmakers from all over the world. They start with 12 teams that are chosen through submissions. In the first stage, they develop those 12 projects, post which, they choose three final projects to finance. This year they made an exception and took four films. The other three films were from Italy, Argentina and Venezuela. They help you see your film through and have mentors from all over the world. It is a very interesting process.
The film started from listening to and discovering the little stories that people had to share
You mentioned that Mukti Bhawan didn’t start as a movie but the place stayed with you. What was it that drove you to then make a film around it?
I think it started from listening to and discovering the little stories that people had to share. And slowly, a film started emerging. The place is like Taj Mahal; when you hear the love story behind it is when you realize that it’s more than just a monument.
And I love Banaras! Every time that I go there, I end up staying a bit longer. So I started spending a lot of time there. And sometimes, you just connect to a place, its people and its stories.
Does the film draw from research around the real place or is it largely fictitious?
While I was writing and developing the story last year, there was an interesting phase when there were many articles around Mukti Bhavan. I put together a huge document of my research that I’d collected from all over. There is also a really great book about the place. Also, my own travels to the place and interactions with the people, from the Dom Raja to those at Manikarnika ghat, were all part of the research. So it was a mix of reading as well as first-hand research.
When you’re talking about Mukti Bhavan, the place, you’re talking about a very emotional concept. How has that influenced the treatment of the film?
I’ve tried to make this film as lifelike and warm as possible. Which was also one of the biggest challenges. When you’re there, you realize that the place is not just filled with sadness. There are times where you feel a bit sad, but it’s not like the people there are always sad or crying. They are smiling, going about their day, and living their life. And when you’re living your life, you tend to joke around and there are light moments. So, the humor was also never scripted on purpose unless it came naturally. I’ve essentially tried to convey things as they are.
At the end of the day, it’s a warm father – son story. But it’s also about how one man’s desire to go and die in a certain place and attain salvation, impacts the entire family. It has little to do with death but more to do with the little humor, irony, and most importantly, the relationships between the family members.
I’ve tried to make this film as lifelike and warm as possible. Which was also one of the biggest challenges
Coming from Kush that had child artists to directing actors like Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl and Geetanjali Kulkarni, how has the evolution been?
We have around six actors in the film but a lot of the other people are not actors. So I did have the experience to deal with the non-actors. Working with actors is really interesting because you use a different language while communicating with them. You’re talking more about the character, the preparation and so on. They brought a lot to the film and I learnt a lot during this process.
Did you envision any of these actors while scripting the characters?
The only actor that I had in mind while writing was Lalit (Behl) ji. I remember seeing him in Titli where he has just one line in the entire film. But throughout the film, he has this looming presence and a dominating quality, which was great. He was the first and only face in my mind for the character of the old father.
When it came to Geetanjali too, I felt that she would be great for the role. I really like her work and believe that she is one of the best actors in India. The same goes for Adil Hussain as well. Palomi Ghosh is also fantastic in the film.
Lalit (Behl) ji was the first and only face in my mind for the character of the old father
How has this film helped you grow as a filmmaker?
With every passing day, I love filmmaking a little more. While making your first film, you’re a little lost as you’re still discovering the process. With this film, I’ve had the chance to grow a little in every department. At the same time, a new movie is a new movie and you approach it with fresh eyes. So I just start and grow with every film.
Both your films have been to the Venice Film Festival. How different were the takeaways this time round?
Going to Venice this year was different because it was my first feature film. There was a lot of unexpected support and a lot of people came to watch it. Even the entire team at Venice was extremely supportive. There was a lot of interest in the film and many people also came up to us and shared their experience.
But I enjoyed both the processes equally because the first time that I was there, it was like a fairyland since it was my first festival. The second time also felt like a fairyland because I was there with my first feature and had my cast and crew and even a few friends with me. And it was the first time that an audience was watching the film. I think that every time that an audience watches your film is special.
In your experience, what is the kind of impetus that festivals like these give to any film?
I think a film, especially without the big movie stars, needs a platform and exposure; it needs to be seen. And a film festival, particularly on a global level, provides that. They support all kinds of films. People think that festivals only have art house films, which is not true. Films like Birdman, Gravity, La La Land etc. come to a festival first to get that little push before they go to theatres. And many great mainstream films have been discovered at festivals. So it’s a great place for films to be seen or discovered. Also they support new filmmakers and new ideas, films that may otherwise get lost. And if the right people see your film, then they help you to bring it out in the world.
Many great mainstream films have been discovered at festivals
Where next is the film headed to?
The film will be shown at the Busan International Film Festival where we have four shows. And then we’ll plan ahead. We’re also planning and working on our strategies on how to bring the film to people all across the world. It is going to be a challenge but it’s a fun challenge. People have responded strongly to the trailer and I think that itself is a great thing. If a film like this can appeal to people, especially youngsters, it’s wonderful.