Hotel Salvation is the latest Indian Independent film to successfully tour film festivals worldwide and now receive a limited general release in the UK. It was first launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. Its young (25 year-old) writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani had already won prizes with Kesh (2013), his thesis film short from New York School of Visual Arts which also first screened at Venice, winning two awards. His début feature feels tonally similar to Court (2014) and seems to have followed a similar distribution pattern. It also shares one of the lead actors from Court, Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays Lata, the wife of the central character, Rajiv (Adil Hussain). Rajiv is a hard-working family man with a student daughter living somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. His 77 year-old father Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with the family and one day he announces that his death is imminent and that he wants to die seeking salvation in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He expects his son to take him to Varanasi for his last few days. That’s the outline of the plot. When I saw the film at a preview a few weeks ago, the flyer promoting it from the distributor, the British Film Institute, gave a wholly misleading reference, quoting critics who likened it to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011). I have nothing against that film, but Hotel Salvation is quite different and the reference simply shows the problems Indian films face with such ignorance from mainstream critics. The BFI now seems to have withdrawn the flyer, probably after so many negative reactions.
Shubhashish Bhutiani had the idea for the film when he discovered the existence of the Varanasi ‘Mukti Bhawans’ or ‘Salvation Hotels’ – modest hostels which allow a dying person to stay for a maximum 15 days. If they have not died in that time they must move out – but some just re-admit themselves under a different name. The hostel has a priest on hand and access to all the necessary services. Varanasi is still well-known for its ghats – the stepped embankments that lead down to the Ganges, some of which are regularly used for cremations and pujas (religious rituals). However, the numbers are now restricted because of fears of pollution. Daya avails himself of what is on offer and makes a number of friends in his first fortnight while Rajiv grows increasingly frustrated, linked via his mobile to a boss who keeps asking him when he is returning. Later both his wife and daughter will come to visit with their own concerns and Bhutiani has said:
“What this film does is that it looks at the same incident from the eyes of three different generations. It is also reflective of present-day India when a section is busy consolidating cultural and traditional mores while there is a set of people wanting development and liberalism. In between, there is a struggle between the East and West and the issue of cultural dilution with internet telling us what people are eating and wearing in different parts of the world. Things like what is organic food?” (The Hindu, 18 April 2017, Interview by Anuj Kumar)
Bhutiani is a sophisticated young man, born in Kolkata, schooled in Uttarakhand and then New York but also familiar with his mother’s family background in Rajasthan. He states his identity as Indian but his perspective as global. It’s not surprising then that his film has a global appeal not unlike the films of Satyajit Ray, but, also like Ray, rooted in ‘real’ local traditions and cultures. Hotel Salvation is a gentle film, sometimes quite humorous and overall very affecting as we see the family individually learning about themselves and their relationships and eventually coming together. Adil Hussain is the most experienced actor in the film while Lalit Behl has just the one other role in Titli (India 2014). Interestingly, the theatre actor Hussain has complained that he has been ‘underexploited’ in films, including this one: “I want to get rid of this realistic acting for some time. I want to fly, and the stage is one place where I am allowed to fly”. (The Indian Express, 7 May, 2017). But it is precisely the realist representation which works so well here. The situation creates the drama and the actors express the emotion. I look forward to the future films of Shubhashish Bhutiani, a young man with lots of promise. I also liked the music by Tajdar Junaid and the cinematography by two Americans (?) who I’m guessing Bhutiani knows from New York.