It was really a grand adieu to the eight-day Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday when Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought the curtains down. The Red Carpet was abuzz with men and women dressed in the Star Wars costumes that seemed like a takeover by the characters from the maddeningly popular series. Even some of the audiences were dressed as the men and women from Rogue One -- heralding a theme night quite unlike anything that this writer has ever seen.
Perhaps, the most darkest in the franchise, Rogue One is not just an adventure in outer space, but also a deeply moving emotional story of foot soldiers who make sacrifices for the cause they believe in.
With a cast of Felicity Jones and Mads Mikkelsen, the movie talks about a little girl, Jyn (who grows up to be Jones), whose scientist father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), is kidnapped and imprisoned by the Evil Empire. Years later, she is rescued by the friendly Rebel Alliance, which believes that she can take it to her father - who is believed to have information about Death Star’s plot to cause mayhem.
Earlier in the evening, the Festival’s awards were presented by the Dubai ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid. A film about a Yazidi couple, The Dark Wind, about to get married and how the two face evil times won the Festival’s top prize for the best feature in the Muhr category.
Only Men Go To The Grave about -- narrating the difficult relationship between a blind mother and her daughters -- won the best feature honour in the Muhr Emirati section.
None of the five titles from India were part of any competition since only those works from this region qualify to run in the race.
But this is not to diminish the popularity of Indian cinema in Dubai and in other parts of the United Arab Emirates. The hype and hoopla generated by Ranveer Singh-Vaani Kapoor-starrer Befikre was unbelievable. And when Singh came on stage just before the movie began on December 8th evening and sang a number from it, the audience just went on a high. Mind you, the crowds also included a huge number of Arabs.
The other Indian film that created quite a buzz was Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhavan or Hotel Salvation that had a couple of screenings here at the Festival.
When an Indian movie stops itself from going overboard with emotional dramatics, it seems such a refreshing relief from the kind of over-the-top kind of cinema we are battered with day in and day out. And Mukti Bhavan fits perfectly well with the cinema of the subdued. The young Bhutiani, barely 25, presents a poignant plot of 77-year-old Dayanand Kumar (and what a marvellous piece of acting here by Lalit Behl), who wants to spend his last days at the holy city of Varanasi after he has a dream that is recurrent and ominous. He feels his end is round the corner, and he would want to die on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. A death there is believed to stop the cycle of birth.
But his son, Rajiv (another superb performance by Adil Hussain) is in a quandary. With a wife and a daughter. who is all set to get married, and a boss at office who just cannot exist without Rajiv, he somehow agrees to take the old man to Varanasi. It is this journey that the father and son make which changes how they feel about each other. Their relationship turns from one that has been cold, even hostile, to one that is warm, caring and understanding.
Really a wonderful piece of cinema that to this writer came as a wind of reassurance, Mukti Bhavan has been admirably helmed and mounted. Bhutiani does not shy away from showing us the ugly side of Varanasi, images that are disturbing and which seem to erase a bit of the city’s holiness. But then it is here that some men and women believe that they can find salvation, yes in all this mess. And Kumar is one among them who is determined to spend his last days in the city, and despite his son’s and grand-daughter’s pleas, he sets on his journey to life’s end.
In a chat with Bhutiani here the other morning, he says that his relationship with his father is somewhat similar to that we see in his movie. “He is my producer. Sometimes, we are friends. Sometimes, we are not. Sometimes he is my hero. Sometimes, not. One reason why the father-son relationship tends to be difficult is that as a son grows up, he begins to resent the authority over him, an authority exerted by his father. The son wants to be free of this. Hence, the conflict.
“But this is not a bad thing at all. As you grow up, you begin to see you are different from your father in some ways. Children use their parents as a reflection of themselves, But later, they start seeing the dissimilarities as well, and this may be a cause of unease in their relationship”.
Talking about the provocation for Mukti Bhavan, Bhutiani avers that he was always curious about the so-called salvation hotels in Varanasi, and “I have also known a case of how a son was in a moral dilemma when he could not take his father to the city. Also, I have seen how difficult it was for my parents to take care of their parents. I have seen this struggle”.
In India, where family ties are still strong and important, it becomes imperative that one is a good son, one is good father, one is a good husband... And the idea of Mukti Bhavan grew out of all these thoughts and beliefs The urge must have been very strong, for it could not have been easy for Bhutiani to shoot a movie whose budget was modest (”We no longer call it low budget, but love budget, because everybody works for a low fee and for the love of cinema”) and where Varanasi could have thrown up its own challenges. “But we got a good hotel to shoot and we had a fantastic team. There was always this thing about filming a movie with an elderly cast. Sometimes, they would forget their lines. But, then, they are so insightful. They have so much to share about life”.
Bhutiani’s take on life sounds as fascinating as his film, and he hopes to theatrical release it in June -- a month that sees Father’s Day.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the Dubai International Film Festival.)