After garnering a massive response on the international festival circuit, Mukti Bhawan bagged two special mentions at the 64th National Awards, and enjoyed its Indian theatrical release last week. The icing on the cake is that the film is drawing a positive response from the audience as well. Here’s the film’s producer Sanjay Bhutiani and director Shubhashish Bhutiani – the father-son duo behind the success of the film – in conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): What was the thought behind making this film?
Shubhashish Bhutiani: First, I found the setting, this place called Mukti Bhawan, which is a real place in Benaras. The thought was about a son who brings his father… on what ‘mukti’ means for family, and what the idea means for each person. So the idea germinated when I heard about these hotels where people go to die and attain salvation. Each one has a 15-day stay or else they have to leave. I found the idea so intriguing and, in some ways funny, that I knew I had to do something with it.
BOI: How did you approach Sanjay to produce the film? Did you approach him as his son or as a director seeking a producer?
Shubhashish: When I come up with an idea, I usually share it with a few people and he is one of them. We had never made a feature film before and I did not go to him, saying, ‘Papa picture banana hai.’ It was more like, ‘What do you think? This is something I am making.’ It starts with an idea that I bounce off people; I am not a spoilt son whose father produced his film.
BOI: When he approached you, what was your instinctive reaction?
Sanjay: I instinctively said, ‘Yes, it’s amazing.’ And it was a father-son story, so I said ‘okay’. It was unique and I immediately said, ‘Chalo, this should be your launch film.’
Shubhashish: Launch film? I find that so weird. (Laughs)
Sanjay: Okay, what do you want to call it? Debut film… does that sound better? I instinctively said ‘yes’ because it was a very powerful idea.
BOI: After the story was finalised, what was your next step?
Shubhashish: I knew we would make the film in a certain way because it was a different kind of film I didn’t want it to be huge and wanted to make it our way. I knew of this place that helps first-time filmmakers in Italy. I applied to them to see what they thought of my story. They get about 300 stories and it’s a good test to know whether your idea is working. We were selected by them and we developed the script by following their process. They only select three scripts and we were one of them. That’s how the ball started rolling.
BOI: Adil Hussain is one of the finest actors in our industry. How did he come on board?
Shubhashish: His name came up when I was handing out the script to someone. I thought it was a great part for him. We knew someone who had worked with him and I messaged the synopsis of the movie to him, and asked him if he would like to meet me. He happened to be in Mumbai at the time and so he came to my home. We talked about what the film was all about. I told him how I viewed his character and what we wanted to do. He agreed to do the film based on this brief idea of the movie.
BOI: As a producer, was it difficult to put the film together?
Sanjay: No, it wasn’t, although there was a deadline we were working on. Of course, we knew we did not have unlimited resources. It was very challenging to capture his vision the way he wanted to. He wanted to work with a very young crew, and that was good because it was not all that expensive. So, there was a young crew and an old cast, which was a good amalgamation. Since we had a very good team, it was amazing, from lead actors to supporting cast and crew. We worked like a family. I believe that Mukti Bhawan is a lucky project.
BOI: So you had no difficulties as a producer but, Shubhashish, did you face any special challenges as a director?
Shubhashish: There are always difficultlies, even as a producer. I remember him negotiating with everybody and always being stressed. So he wasn’t telling the truth. For me, it was about negotiating ideas, especially at times when I wanted to do something but couldn’t. But I think restrictions are great because they force us to find solutions.
But, yes, I wish we had more money to make this film and one thing money can buy is time. You have to work very quickly and you also have to get it right in a very short time. There is no room for error. This means you have to be hyper focused all the time. I think that was the most challenging part. It puts a lot of pressure on us. Apart from that, it was fun and I enjoyed the experience.
BOI: From the first day of shooting to going to various film festivals, to its release and now special mention at National Awards… how has this director-producer duo evolved over time?
Sanjay: I think we have been a father-son more than a producer-director duo. It’s the second or third project we are doing together. We did a short film and a couple of commercials, social films and now this film. So sometimes, the father-son and producer-director roles get mixed up.
We have arguments and disagreements like anyone else but we always arrive at a consensus. The lines are very clear – he takes the creative calls and I take all the business decisions.
BOI: Do you agree?
Shubhashish: I think we have evolved as individuals also because we were working independently as producer and director for the first time. It was a huge learning experience for me. I started the film as a different person and came out a different person. I feel older now but I am also more ready to make another film now because I understand a lot more. Also, I think we are better communicators with the team and with each other. I think you grow each day.
BOI: How did your journey with international film festivals begin? What was that like?
Sanjay: The first film festival we went to was the Venice Film Festival, where our film had its world premiere. I haven’t seen him happier because we got a 10-minute standing ovation and nobody expected that. People were clapping and crying in the theatre at the end of it. That was the most memorable moment for me.
We received a warm response at every festival, and our film is still going to 25-odd more festivals. He has a very busy calendar and he is going to few International countries as well to release the film, starting with Dubai on May 4 and then Europe and many other countries.
BOI: This is your first feature film and it has received such a massive response, worldwide. What does that feel like?
Shubhashish: It’s nice in many ways. But when I go to festivals, I don’t watch the film because I get anxious when other people are watching the movie. I stay outside and talk about the movie to people later. Even in Mumbai, when we were leaving the theatre, people were still talking about the film. Even in the parking lot!
BOI: What kind of research went into writing the film?
Shubhashish: The first thing I did was, I took a tape recorder and started talking to everybody. Finally, I had a summary. We had this crazy document and there was this book someone has written from where I took a few things. The best research I did was talking to people and getting first-hand information rather than using information from the Internet. It’s about getting into people’s lives, what they eat, what they wear, everything from their daily life to what they are thinking.
BOI: How did you zero onto the location?
Sanjay: Actually, I really didn’t have to go there because Subhashish had done enough research, from pictures to videos. The first time I went to Varanasi was when we did a tech recce with the team, which was 10 to 15 days before we started shooting. And he surprised me by saying that we wouldn’t be shooting at the Mukti Bhawan we had chosen earlier.
I was shocked and when I asked him why he had changed the venue, he said, ‘I don’t like the place. Come here and I will show you why.’ The Mukti Bhawan he had chosen was beautiful and it was beside Gangaji, which was flowing there. So I have seen this film through his eyes and have learnt a lot on this journey with him.
BOI: As a father, is there any particular scene that is close to you?
Sanjay: There is a scene that I really liked but it is not in the film as he didn’t want it included. I think we should include it in the behind-the-scenes bit. It is a very funny scene, where Ali Hussain is going to a temple and he is singing a bhajanwithout really knowing how to do it. I also like the taxi scene, where the character is saying, ‘Arey arey, dheeme chalao dheeme chalao, Banaras pahuchne se phele mereko mukti mat dilao.’
BOI: The film deals with a serious subject like death but you have managed to approach it in a very light-hearted way and in a cinematic way. Was that difficult?
Shubhashish: No, I never found myself thinking, like, ‘Let’s make this funny or light-hearted.’ I went with the flow of the film and what I felt while making the film. I think the humour comes in spontaneously from the story. I made sure it was not forced. It is also fun because we can relate the fun elements to our lives. So I think it’s the comedy of daily life that comes through. So it wasn’t challenging because I was not trying to make a comedy film, I was making a film which was very human.
Sanjay: He always maintained that he was not making a film relating to death but one that related to life. The characters may not be laughing but the audience will connect with them and will laugh or smile during those moments. It is very real.
BOI: What’s next for both of you?
Sanjay: I have started working on a couple of projects.
Shubhashish: And I am unemployed, I mean I am going to sit at home and complete my story.