Autumn is in the air and at last we’re free of summer’s turgid block-busted turkeys, now approaching all the good stuff held back by the studios for New Year’s awards. The first into your local art house is a delight, a study of old age and compassion.
The film is a wonderful débute by its writer-director, and also his father who is the producer. Mukti Bhawan – Hotel Salvation is written and directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani and produced by Sanjay Bhutiani. The film mirrors its creators. It stars Adil Hussain as the son and Lalit Behl as the father in the lead roles, the film subtitled for English speaking audiences.
Hotel Salvation tells the story of an elderly Indian who coerces his son to accompany him on a death trip to the Indian town of Varanasi. His father plans to die in the Salvation Hotel, a cramped, paint peeling, slatted bed, mouse infested garret without facilities. You cook in your room, you light it with candles, you wash in the river at the foot of the steps.
You have fifteen days to pass on to the next life, or vacate the room for another ‘guest’, so says the curmudgeonly Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi) owner of this down-at-heel hotel who claims to know when all his residents will die — but won’t tell them.
I’d like to think you don’t have to be middle-aged, suffered a serious life threatening illness, or in your dotage to appreciate the nuances of this magnificent study of life’s ebb meeting death, but it will help.
This film is what the business call a potential cross-over project. It has all the elements to pluck the heart strings, and by word of mouth, maybe move from limited release in art house cinemas into multiplexes. Mrs Brown (1999) starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly was one such small scale project, the kind Miramax used to grab when shown at film festivals. This one deserves the same path.
Readers brought up on the Hollywood two-second take, a technique originating in the eighties to give false impression of energy and pace, or Peter Jackson’s swirling, restless camera work, will wonder if they can sit through a wide-screen feature that holds the frame for the length of each conversation.
Discourse is not cut up into sections, chatter beginning in the street, and then in the office atrium, continued in the lift, to be carried on along and around corridors. Characters move into and out of a static composition. There are panning shots later, but Bhutiani has in the main chosen the perfect style to tell us the story.
Large chunks of the film are spoken in hushed tones. I found them to be most affecting. Intensely attractive, they pull us into the lives of the characters, at times immensely moving. The ambling pace allows us to observe and to understand and to empathise.
The feature is billed as a comedy, and indeed some of the dialogue is very amusing, the little things in daily life that bug all of us, that trip us up. An Indian audience will laugh uproariously when they recognise themselves in similar situations, but the comedy isn’t broad enough for a western audience to cause us to laugh out loud. There is, however, an hilarious scene that achieves laughter. Mid-narrative between the father, and his wife and daughter they try unsuccessfully to conduct a difficult discussion using an unstable connection in an Internet café. Each response over the computer screen is perfectly timed, aided by an expert piece of film editing. Outside that moment everything is understated, and all the better for it.
The comedy is there to avoid falling into the trap of artificial tragedy, over-wrought emotions, and hair tearing despair – better known as soap. Along with the son, the film invites us to embrace death as natural occurrence rather than a cause for torment.
An Indian comedy full of emotional depth and paradox, Hotel Salvation describes the tragicomic ordeal of an over-worked modern son who is forced to set his job aside and accompany his elderly father to the holy city of Varanasi to, presumably, die. “How do you know you’re dying?” asks the son of his ailing father. “Because I don’t have the energy to live anymore” answers the father in a matter-of-fact way.
All adults have days when they wake to a derelict morning, when life seems futile. We cannot face the day’s tasks nor want to. For the very elderly each day is a physical effort. Like an old, worn out wild animal that knows its time has come, we look for a suitable place to lie down and die, that is, if spared a sudden death, or an agonising death, unable to choose the manner of our own departure.
The look, pace and humanity of this work reminded me of the great Bengal writer-director Satyajit Ray, though never quite attaining that giant’s ability to make a modest story achieve Shakespearean proportions. But it runs a close second. I think it misses greatness by not lingering long enough of any one character, but instead moving between the whole family. Perhaps it’s the lack of close ups, or a dearth of natural sounds, such as wind through shutters, or a child crying. There is an absence of children, the symbol of life renewed.
Like Ray’s subjects, the story is simple and unadorned. Justifiably, this well-made first feature won Bhutiani the Unesco award for peace and human rights in Venice this year.
Adil Hussain gives us a good interpretation of harried middle-aged accountant, Rajiv, a man obsessed with counting investment money for his clients – a possible pointer to India becoming an economic power house. He barely has time for his family, which includes his wife and teenage daughter, the spry, idealistic and rebellious Daya, a captivating performance from Lalit Behl.
His father is a dignified old fellow of seventy-seven years of age who has a prophetic dream about his death, and decides it’s time to await the end in the holy Hindu city on the Ganges. In this regard, the film illustrates the traditional Hindi philosophy of death and freedom from entrapment and attachment. When you die you take nothing with you. You leave behind your worldly goods for family and friends to use.
This is not the glitzy world of British star casting we saw in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, nor its it an all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood musical. Everything is observed from the wry viewpoint of a modern Indian, one who has lost touch with the revered traditions of the past, and indeed with reality.
The humour is feather pillow-soft, never falling into pathos or morbidity. No funeral pyres are lit, no smoke rises to the heavens, no people fall to their knees and weep. This is a film where even a sleepy dog scratching a flea behind its ear does so in a dignified way. Bhutiani rejects cliché. He takes us by the hand through a difficult, stressful moment in all our lives, how we handle the death of a loved one. The film has an immense dignity – try claiming that of current clap–trap from Hollywood this year.
Like the film itself, Tajdar Junaid’s music is minimalist, appearing only when needed, and sparingly placed. There is surprise in the choice of Western guitar and orchestral accompaniment when the sound of Indian sitar would have been the obvious choice. Cinematography by Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler brings out the warmth of the sun and the elegiac sunsets.
Who would have thought a scenario of life on the edge of death, made on a modest budget, could achieve depth, affection, and tenderness, that offers spiritual satisfaction.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Bel, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Palomi Ghosh Navnindra Behl
- Director: Shubhashish Bhutiani
- Screenwriters: Shubhashish Bhutiani, Asad Hussain
- Cinematography: Michael McSweeney, David Huwiler
- Music: Tajdar Junaid
- Duration: 102 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?