It’s not easy being an independent film-maker anywhere in the world, but spare a thought for Indian directors outside the system. This should be their time: films like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court have cleaned up at international film festivals, while directors like Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), Vishal Bhardwaj (Omkara) and R. Balki (Pad Man) have demonstrated that mainstream Indian cinemagoers are ready to accept grittier, more offbeat stories. Yet, as Kaleem Aftab notes in the booklet accompanying this BFI dual-format release, progress has been slowed because most of the international audience wants to see one thing and one thing only from India: Bollywood.
“Bollywood” is the wider world’s nickname for what is domestically referred to as the “masala movie” – a bit of singing and dancing, a bit of action, a bit of comedy, a bit of everything else. Anyone curious about what modern Indian cinema outside the masala tradition looks like could do a lot worse than pick up Hotel Salvation. For all Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut film is made in India and has an entirely Indian cast, it’s extremely accessible to outsiders – not least because the part of India it deals with is as much a mystery to its protagonist Rajiv as it is anyone in the West.
Rajiv is played by Adil Hussain, a prolific character actor whose work outside India includes parts in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. His nine-to-five routine is disrupted when his elderly father Daya, a devout Hindu, has a dream that he claims foretells his imminent death. Daya believes – as millions of Hindus do – that anyone who dies in the city of Varanasi is guaranteed salvation, so they immediately book a hotel there. The opening credits sequence subtly lays out the central theme of the film, as Rajiv and Daya start off in a taxi on a busy motorway and end up parking a rickshaw on the banks of the Ganges. It is, as Neil Young sang, a journey through the past.
Hotel Salvation is a gentle, respectful, contemplative film. When you see the Ganges as shot by cinematographers David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney, it’s easy to see why Daya considers it holy. It’s not above humour, though, and it definitely understands the clash between God and Mammon inherent in the idea of a hotel for pilgrims. The hotel’s manager forbids the consumption of meat and alcohol in his establishment, but encourages Daya to check out the local hashish and opium. But Rajiv’s modern life is a target for the film’s playful humour as well, and Hussain gives a fine, slow-burning performance.
Unbelievably, Bhutiani was in his mid-twenties when he made this tender exploration of old age and dying. His film exhibits a broad frame of cinematic reference – the opening dream sequence is closer to The Singing Detective than Sholay – which extends to his casting. His Daya, Lalit Behl, has only two IMDb credits to Hussain’s 57 – but he is the father of the director Kanu Behl, who cast Lalit in his gangster epic Titli. Perhaps this is how Bhutiani tapped into such deep emotions? Did he see Lalit as a symbolic father figure to the kind of non-mainstream cinema he wanted to make? However it was achieved, it’s a thoroughly satisfying film with two excellent lead performances.
Despite Hotel Salvation being a debut feature the BFI have found plenty of extras, including a making-of featurette and a Q&A with Bhutiani and his producer and father Sanjay – a much more urbane father figure than Daya. There are also two short films, one of which – Kush – is directed by Bhutiani. The other, 1899’s Panorama of Calcutta, is a much more esoteric pick. Despite its title it actually spends most of its two-minute runtime observing Varanasi from what appears to be the vantage point of a boat. The comparison is obvious. Panorama of Calcutta is a diverting trip through Varanasi, but if you want to roll up your trouser legs and wade in the water, Hotel Salvation is your only destination.