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Original title: Mukti Bhawan

D: Shubhashish Bhutiani / 99m

Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kalkarni, Palomi Ghosh, Navnindra Behl, Anil K. Rastogi

What would you say if you had an elderly father and he announced one day that he thought that his time had come, that it would soon be time for him to die? And what if he also announced that he planned to spend his last days at a hotel that would allow him to prepare his soul for death? Outside of India, where there are three or four such hotels, the matter is unlikely to arise, but if it did, if your elderly father wanted to see out his life away from his family and friends, and with like-minded people, how supportive would you be? Would you remonstrate with him, try and get him to change his mind, emotionally blackmail him, perhaps, by impressing on him how upsetting this will be for his relatives (and yourself)? Or would you do everything in your power to make his final wishes come true? This is the dilemma faced by Rajiv (Hussain) in the feature debut of Shubhashish Bhutiani, an engaging, wistful look at death and its effect on the surviving family.

Daya (Lalit Behl) is the elderly father in question, a seventy-seven year old man who has a dream in which he pursues his boyhood self through the deserted village of his childhood. He takes it as a sign that he is being called to the afterlife, and tells his family – son Rajiv, daughter-in-law Lata (Kalkarni), and granddaughter Sunita (Ghosh) – that he plans to travel to Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganges, to stay at a hotel where he hopes to attain salvation. Rajiv doesn’t know what to do about this, torn as he is between loyalty to his father, and his personal reluctance to entertain such an idea. It’s only when his father threatens to go by himself that Rajiv agrees to accompany him to Varanasi. Once there, Daya and Rajiv find the hotel to be a simple one, with basic amenities, and run by the sincere, yet business-like Mishraji (Rastogi). They settle in, with Daya having fifteen days to achieve salvation or face being asked to leave. Rajiv has a lot of trouble adjusting to the situation, and finds looking after his father more stressful than he could have imagined.

While Rajiv juggles caring for his father with the demands of his work, Daya embraces the atmosphere of the hotel, and gets to know some of the other guests. In particular, he becomes friendly with a widow, Vimla (N. Behl); they both find meaning in their being at the hotel and facing the certain futures they have decided for themselves. This gives them an increased sense of comfort, but it’s not enough for Rajiv to understand how clearly they see their salvation, or why they are so calm and practical about it all. Even the wise ministrations of Mishraji can’t put a dent in Rajiv’s unhappy presence. As the days pass, Daya’s peace of mind and acceptance of his fate leads to Rajiv having to make an equally fateful decision: whether to stay with his father until the end, or return home to his family and his work.

Death isn’t exactly the most cinema-friendly of subjects, and when it’s placed front and centre in a movie in the way that it is in Hotel Salvation, there’s always the chance that it will lead to a dour, dispiriting exercise in profound sorrow or morbid pessimism. But thanks to a knowing, sympathetic script by Bhutiani, this meditation on one of life’s greater certainties, is both affecting and sophisticated, using as it does the differences of opinion and belief in different generations, and by exploring the outer limits of faith and personal conviction. That said, faith and belief are only minor elements in a tale that more carefully examines the relationship between a father and a son that isn’t as clearly defined as it should be. There is a bond between the two, certainly, and it is borne out of familial love and affection, but it’s also become frayed at the edges, leaving both father and son unable to connect fully with each other. The trip to Varanasi, as well as giving Daya a chance at salvation, is also a last chance for the pair to make good on the strain in their relationship.

However, both men are too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice right away the opportunity that’s in front of them, and Bhutiani’s trenchant, observant script doesn’t let either character off the hook for their near-sighted behaviour. He’s aided by two standout performances by Hussain and Behl, both actors rising to the challenges of the script and giving well rounded portrayals that capture the idiosyncracies of both men, while also displaying the deep-rooted bond that they share as father and son. Hussain judges Rajiv’s flustered dismay at being away from his work and his family with a mix of baffled expressions and abject body language, his tactless references to trains home and the impolitic nature of his father’s last wishes, making the character credible from the start; if Rajiv doesn’t understand his father, then why has he accompanied him? Is it from guilt, feelings of familial responsibility, or a need to be “there” at the end? Bhutiani is clever enough to make all three viable, and Hussain’s layered portrayal allows for further interpretations to be made.

In many respects, Behl has the simpler role, but through his interactions with Vimla and the other guests, Bhutiani ensures that we get to know the man behind the decision, and how the surety of his purpose has liberated him as an individual. It’s a wonderfully expansive portrayal, with Behl striking the right note in every scene, and providing the viewer with clear insights into the workings of his (very much made up) mind. This interior work is finely balanced against a shooting style that errs on the side of wide shots for the most part, and a much broader, comedic canvas against which Bhutiani pokes genial fun at the idea of the hotel itself, while also detailing its more serious nature and the benefits available to its guests. But Bhutiani is just as interested in the effect on Daya’s family as he is on Daya himself, and the various reactions and emotions displayed by Rajiv, Lata, and Sunita offer clever insights into just how unsettling “co-operating” in someone’s death can be. In the end, it’s a movie about accepting death and celebrating life, two subjects that this movie addresses with ease.

Rating: 9/10 – a thoughtful, considerate, and witty examination of what it is to prepare for death, and the best way to go about it, Hotel Salvation is that rarity: a movie that draws you in and makes you forget you’re watching a movie; beautifully shot by DoPs Mike McSweeney and David Huwiler, Bhutiani’s feature debut already marks him out as a movie maker to watch, and takes the viewer on a journey of self-discovery that isn’t all about Daya, or Rajiv, but about the hopes and fears surrounding death for all of us.