From death, springs life, in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s soulful debut Hotel Salvation. The winner of the 2016 Venice International Film Festival Unesco Award for peace and human rights is a warming meditation on life’s final days and will screen at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). The young director avoids sentimental ploys to achieve an empathetic piece of cinema, while capturing a holy Indian city in an authentic light.
In the opening moments of Hotel Salvation, we glide past grassland and through a sun-baked village, following a young boy and the old man running after him, somewhere in rural India. An unseen mother is calling out for ‘Daya’—both youth and elder look around to respond.
We land at a dinner table and spritely grandfather Daya (Lalit Behl) announces that he’s had another vision, one his family has heard many times before. Apparently the vividness of this most recent dream is a sign he is close to death. The family reacts as most families do when death is mentioned around the elderly: averting eye-contact and nonchalantly brushing off the idea. The son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is particularly dismissive, but behind his spectacles and conservative haircut, there’s clearly a sense of anxiety. Daya has decided it’s time to leave his family’s middle-class life behind and die elsewhere, and Rajiv feels obliged to take leave from work and chaperone his father to the titular hotel.
Though it initially feels like we’re about to embark on a bonding road-trip with the father and son, Hotel Salvation in the holy riverside city of Varanasi, is the first and last (physical) stop of the voyage.
“Its proximity to the most sacred, life-bringing river in India, frames the hotel as a paradoxical place of death birthing life; Rajiv and Daya’s fractured relationship, starts to heal as the father approaches death.”
Hugging the bank of the sacred Ganges, Hotel Salvation is a sprawling stone building that houses elderly people who sense they’re close to death. Rajiv remains sceptical of his father’s condition and is wary of the hotel’s peeling wallpaper, bare floors and aloof host. But what the place lacks in niceties, it makes up for in welcoming residents. A woman named Vimla (Navnindra Behl) promptly cooks a welcome dinner for the father and son, and soon reveals that despite the “15-day policy” for a maximum stay, she’s been at the hotel for 18 years. It appears less of a nursing home and more of a retreat that allows the elderly to disconnect from the outside world. Its proximity to the most sacred, life-bringing river in India, frames the hotel as a paradoxical place of death birthing life; Rajiv and Daya’s fractured relationship, starts to heal as the father approaches death.
There are moments when Hotel Salvation is in danger of becoming overly sentimental or caught up in its own heavy-handed metaphors about mortality, but the film’s meditative pace and restrained performances keep it from veering into sanctimonious territory. The thoughtful use of Indian hymns and orchestral flourishes (from Tajdar Junaid) punctuate the soundtrack and swell as Daya ages and Rajiv starts to accept the fate of his father. The music, coupled with the softness of David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney’s cinematography, lighten this story of growth, as our focus is drawn away from the material attributes of the hotel and to the swirling, unknowable river.
The organic way in which director Shubhashish Bhutiani approaches aging and death is decidedly anti-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; the story isn’t about fulfilling dreams, it’s about the acceptance of death. Daya doesn’t seem phased by idea of passing into the next realm; he embraces the inevitable with open arms, earnestly announcing, “I am going to be reborn a lion.” His son, however, is consumed with everyday work stresses and the inconveniently mismatched engagement of his daughter. We’re invited to grow with Rajiv, as the film becomes flooded with natural light and the Ganges appear more frequently, vast expanses of water seem to overcome human anxieties.
Considering that Bhutiani is only 25-years-old, this feature debut is anchored by an impressive level of emotional maturity. Partially based on the director’s own upbringing and family relationships, the film is a warm-hearted and understated portrait of the way humans deal with mortality that is steeped in Hindu custom, but resonates universally.
Hotel Salvation will screen at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday 6 August at 11am and on Tuesday 15 August at 4pm.
Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan) by Shubhashish Bhutiani (2017), 102 minutes, India