“Hotel Salvation” (“Mukti Bhawan”)
Life, Death and Marijuana
In many families, old people are the focus of attention. The very young crowd wants to listen to their stories and the middle-aged generation is tired of their repetitiveness. The generation closest to them wants them to live just a little bit longer for reasons even unknown to them. “Hotel Salvation” is about all of these things and none of them. The focus is death itself and it is embraced here. Dayanand (Lalit Behi) is a stubborn 76-year-old (actually 77) man. He has had visions of his childhood for quite some time and he manipulates them to be visions of his approaching death. He decides to move to Banaras (Kashi) and die in a spiritual spirit by the holy river. His working-class son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and daughter-in-law Lata (Gitanjali Kulkarni) refuse to follow up on his wishes by questioning the very idea of how can one know that he is about to die. Even after constant persuasion, he remains rigid on his decision. Rajiv, realizing that this might possibly be the last journey in his father’s life accompanies him to the shore of the Ganga and right into Hotel Salvation.
Hotel Salvation is an old lodge on the holy river. Elderly people come here seeking salvation. There is a strict 15-day policy of leaving if death doesn’t come. It does not offer any real salvation in the name of comfort. The food has to be self-prepared and you need to make choices between watching the daily soap, reeling in bed, doing yoga or listening to the loud holy tunes that soothe the soul. Dayanand becomes friendly with a kind lady, who, as it turns out has been living here for a little over 18 years now. She thus has a new name for her soul every 15 days, as if disowning and owning a body. Rajiv is deeply tormented by his father’s will to live in such a place and he is unable to get his office work done and his daughter who is an arranged marriage keeps complaining.
The film is a sharp commentary on all the myths that surround the process of death. The essence of losing oneself before time takes him on a drifting journey to whatever lies ahead and this is explored in the film with a subtle calmness. We aren’t so consumed by the idea of death that when it comes to our loved ones, we try to stop it with chemicals and hospital visits. We do not understand the inevitability of it all. “Hotel Salvation” tells us to celebrate life and death with the same energy and serenity. At its core, is the bond between a father and a son who don’t understand each other even though they have been living under the same roof and the same house for years. Both of them try to hold each other’s hand and walk down the same path but somehow, things get lost.
While the film is about last goodbyes, its sole purpose is to find the peace that one’s mind needs and deserves. Bhutani doesn’t propose his characters to be sinners in any way but there are always deeply etched regrets that one lives with all through their life. Director Shubhashish Bhutani gently takes us into the soul of each person in the film. We learn their regrets, their stories, their weirdness and their lives that will be defined by their words and wisdom and nothing else.
The actors are excellent Lalit Behl is wonderful as the man who is in total acceptance of his fate. Adil Hussain is very real as the son who wants to take up the responsibility of everything that surrounds him.
David Huwiler’s cinematography is beautiful. It occasionally points to the not so substantial things in a frame, giving us a sense of belonging and an extra eye in this celebration of life and eventual death. Instead on focusing on decay, the frames mostly take us to the river or the narrow colorful lanes of Banaras for everything to settle in. The film is also beautifully scored by Tajdar Junaid, whose ukulele and use of Indian sounds give the film an extra edge of profundity.
The film sheds a spiritual light on the seemingly dark path to inevitable oblivion. Bhutani presents a vivid sense of love, regrets, understanding and leaving things behind that we instantly lighten up. The film doesn’t just provide us with salvation, it gives our life and possible death a new meaning–one that should be left to the understanding of the conscience and nothing more than that.
As a non-Hindu looking at this story play out, I did leave with something of a naturalistic theory. I do think there’s a sincerity present that does go beyond simply the naturalistic. It is clear that while most of the devotees who come to the town to die, do (somewhat surprisingly) do so, there are others (including one woman who becomes a fairly important character in the story) who don’t. Plus the Hindu priest who gave the incoming Daya “two weeks to die” (or else leave) proves to be a bit more flexible with the devotees coming to the hotel than it would initially seem (he does let some clearly stay longer).
This is a subtle family comedy-drama that anyone who has spent time with an aging parent can relate to.