'Hotel Salvation' ('Mukti Bhawan'): Film Review | Dubai 2016

HOTEL SALVATION - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Dubai Film Festival
An enjoyable, thoughtful comedy about dying, freedom and family ties.

An elderly Indian coerces his working son to accompany him on a death trip to Varanasi.

An Indian comedy full of emotional depth and understated paradox, Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan) 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. The outcome is never a given, however, in this well-made first feature that won director Shubhashish Bhutiani the Unesco award for peace and human rights in Venice this year. Though small and low-budget with a slow, ambling rhythm, the tale’s exotic setting, family values and satisfying moral outcome make it an ideal festival film, one that could do some crossover business under the right circumstances.

Following his award-winning short film Kush, Bhutiani developed Hotel Salvation through Venice’s Biennale College program. He approaches the topic of getting old and dying with down-to-earth humor that never lessens his basic respect for the characters' dignity. On a more ambitious level, the film humorously illustrates the traditional Hindi philosophy of death and freedom from entrapment and attachment, but in such a low-key way it's never a burden.

Though the film has many elements that bring to mind the Indian retirement haven of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, Bhutiani’s take on the subject is embedded in Indian culture and Hindu rituals. In an early scene, for example, the father donates a cow to the temple as a prelude to his final journey, and later takes a ritual bath in the Ganges river. Everything is observed from the wry viewpoint of his modern Indian son, who initially seems to go along with Dad more out of duty than love.

A harried middle-aged accountant, Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is so busy counting money he barely has time for his family, which includes his wife and teenage daughter and the spry Daya (Lalit Behl), a dignified old fellow of 77 who seems a little out of it. His routine is suddenly interrupted when Dad has a prophetic dream about his death, and decides it’s time to pack up and wait for the end in the holy Hindu city on the Ganges.

Rajiv has no choice but to accompany him. A man ruled by the clock, he has to wonder how long the journey will take. As his boss snaps, “You can attain salvation anywhere, don’t forget your targets!” This sets up the basic question of the role of tradition in modern India, a theme that subtly plays in the background through the whole film.  

If there was ever a timeless city, it’s Varanasi, and as soon as they arrive Rajiv finds himself caught between his responsibility to his father and to his boss, who calls him mercilessly. They check into a cramped, mice-ridden hostel run by the practical, curmudgeonly Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi) who claims to know when all his residents will die — but of course he won’t tell them. In any case, turnover is high and no one is allowed to stay longer than two weeks. Will it be enough?

Daya immediately settles in, making friends with the delightful widow Vimla (Navnindra Behl) and avidly following his favorite TV show Flying Saucer with the other terminal residents. He has never seemed better. Rajiv gnaws his nails, torn between wanting his father to live and his anxiety to get back to work. His stress is palpable and one feels for his dilemma, at the same time one knows he has a big lesson to learn in that place.

The humor is whisper-soft, taking the edge off potential morbidity. Rather than film Varanasi's awe-inspiring burning ghats, where corpses are cremated on open-air funeral pyres, Bhutiani turns away from drama to give us a glimpse of the huge wood piles stored for the purpose on back lots. He prefers to emphasize the simple pleasures of the city, its shady walks and winding streets.

Though the acting is low-key, it’s full of warmth and tenderness that involves the audience in the shared joy, worry and grief of an identifiable family. Hussain is a standout as he shoulders the burden of Rajiv’s drudgery without a smile on his careworn face. One hopes that his rebellious daughter’s generation, at least, will find the joy and freedom that have escaped him and live life on their own terms.

Much in the spirit of the film, Tajdar Junaid's music is melodious and stays in the background. Offering a bit of surprise is the choice to use Western guitar and orchestral accompaniment when the sound of Indian sitar would have been the obvious, banal choice. Cinematography by Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler pleasantly brings out the warmth of the sun on dilapidated walls and peeling paint.

Production company: Red Carpet Moving Pictures
Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Bel, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Palomi Ghosh Navnindra Behl, Anil K. Rastogi
Director: Shubhashish Bhutiani  
Screenwriters: Shubhashish Bhutiani, Asad Hussain
Producers: Sanjay Bhutiani, Sajida Sharma, Shubhashish Bhutiani
Executive producer: Dina Dattani
Directors of photography: Michael McSweeney, David Huwiler
Production designer: Avyakta Kapur
Costume designer: Shruti Wadetiwar
Editor: Manas Mittal
Music: Tajdar Junaid
Casting: Gopal Dey
Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Cinema of the World)
102 minutes