Mukti Bhawan and the Parent Trap

Pop Culture

Mukti Bhawan and the Parent Trap

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

There is a tender moment in Mukti Bhawan that goes to the heart of the complicated relationships we share with our parents. Late one night, Rajiv, the overworked middle-aged son (Adil Hussain) is on the steps of Varanasi’s ghats with his stubborn father Daya (Lalit Behl).

Rajiv asks him whether he’d want to be born in the same family again. Fearing the answer he is about to receive, Rajiv tries meeting Daya’s eyes, hoping that the reply is in his favour. The patriarch looks down at the steps before responding with a “No” – but adds that he’d like to come back as a kangaroo, not a person. Kangaroos have pockets they can store everything in, Daya tells Rajiv earnestly, prompting the first laugh the father and son share in days – maybe years.

In that moment, the scene instantaneously shifts. It could have been a tense altercation, but it turns into a precious moment of temporary calm, of momentary peace, between a father and a son scurrying to make up for lost time. They indulge in silly banter and revel in each other’s company, leaving behind the weight of the previous minutes forgotten. It’s a style debutante director Shubhashish Bhutiani attempts throughout the film, delivering a take on death that is interspersed with generous dollops of humour, subverting situations of potential morbidity, especially in the scenes where Rajiv’s wife demands to know how long it will take for his father to die.

Because, in Mukti Bhawan, death is neither tragic nor is it the end – it is just an event for a celebration.

Set in the holy city on the Ganga, Mukti Bhawan is the story of Daya, the patriarch of a middle-class family in Kanpur, who after a prophetic dream about death, decides that his time on earth is up. He announces his wish to breathe his last at Varanasi’s famed hostel and attain salvation. His sceptical son, who is too busy to take time off work, reluctantly agrees to accompany him, out of a sense of duty rather than love towards his father.

We do not want our parents to linger and yet the heart attack’s unpredictable finality leaves no time for farewell.

At Mukti Bhawan, they are given an ultimatum of “15 days to die.” While Daya’s personality flourishes at the hostel – bonding with Vimla, the widow waiting for her death for the last 18 years – Rajiv begins to unravel in the dingy room he is forced to share with his father. He is torn between wanting Daya to live and yet anxious to return to work. It’s also a commentary on the times we live in, where we want to be there for our parents, but can’t seem to find the time or inclination to. As time passes, most of us begin to look at living with our parents as a filial duty – mechanically fulfilling the responsibilities expected of us instead of listening to them and devoting time to their needs.

Because after all, confronting the ageing and impending death of a parent is one of the most emotionally fraught things we experience in life. It isn’t merely the sense of loss when a family member passes: Losing a parent feels like diving into life without a safety net. It’s the reliving of the trauma of being born, minus the comfort of incomprehension. It is a free fall; it is the absence of a Plan B. But most upsetting of all, it is the ultimate signifier of growing up, of irrevocable adulthood.

Last year, in a piece published in the Straits Times, sports columnist Rohit Brijnath wrote: “I am sounding braver than I actually feel for the inevitability of a parent’s death is like a shadow that walks quietly with most of us.” We ignore it because to dwell on death is to no longer live; Rajiv ignores it until he no longer can.

“Death will come,” writes Brijnath, “and somehow, it will always be imperfect… The devilry of distance – I live two flights from my parents – means that it is unlikely we will be home in time. We do not want our parents to linger and yet the heart attack’s unpredictable finality leaves no time for farewell. We are presuming, of course, that there is such a thing as a graceful goodbye. Perhaps it is in how we live with them that is more vital.”

And yet, it’s the living with them that is most difficult. Mukti Bhawan beautifully captures this anxious relationship between a father and son, who are unable to express themselves unless put on a clock. Both the men instantly unravel and seek forgiveness when Daya has a death scare on the second night at the hostel.

Then, there is the scene when Rajiv is about to head back home on his father’s insistence to leave him alone. The duo keep staring at each other, unsure of whether they should embrace despite being acutely aware that it might indeed be the last time they see each other. The lead up to their final, long-due embrace is as moving as it is heart-warming. Rajiv holds on to Daya – tight like a young boy scared to lose his father.

Above life and death, Mukti Bhawan is a story about realising the importance of parents before it is too late. Karan Johar might take credit for the phrase, “It’s all about loving your family”, but Mukti Bhawan drives the severity of that feeling home – and makes you call your parents as soon as the end credits start rolling.