Hotel Salvation (PG)
India 2016 102 mins Subtitles Dir: Shubhashish Bhutiani Cast: Adil Hussain, Lalit Behl, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Palomi Ghosh, Navnindra Behl, Anil K. Rastogi
“I think my time has come. I am ready to die now.” As dinner table conversation stoppers go, this takes some beating. Following what he believes to be a prophetic dream, wilful old goat Daya (Behl) reckons it’s time to beat a path to the sacred ghats of Varanasi in order to achieve salvation upon his demise. The kicker for Daya’s uptight, harassed, middle-class businessman son Rajiv (Hussain) – a slave to his mobile phone – is that he’s expected to tag along too. Thus the stage is set with ruthless efficiency for one of those father-son bonding flicks during which the odd couple come to understand one another better, long-standing grievances are aired and resolved, and nasty, joyless, high-pressure modern life is contrasted unfavourably with a more relaxed, fulfilling, spiritual way of living and dying, prompting a reassessment of priorities as all are enriched by their experiences. Anyone hoping for a bit of grit, a soupcon of scepticism, or even the occasional surprise, should seek their jollies elsewhere. Indiaphiles and the spiritually receptive, on the other hand, will find much to savour in young first-time feature director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s gentle, lovingly crafted comedy-drama.
Unlike Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, to which it bears a certain similarity, this ain’t no road movie. Indeed, the destination is reached fairly quickly – with Rajiv symbolically urging the cabbie to speed up, while Daya equally symbolically asks him to slow down. Bhutiani sets quirkiness to stun when they arrive at the spartan, run-down, rodent-infested Hotel Salvation on the banks of the Ganges, which is packed with eccentric codgers on one-way tickets to the funeral pyre. It’s run by canny Mishraji (Rastogi), who has a glib little mantra about death being a process and imposes few rules – no meat or alcohol, but the local marijuana comes highly recommended. However, the maximum stay is 15 days. If the old boy fails to cark it within the allotted timeframe, he’ll be out on his ear.
It’s not hard to appreciate why this has been dubbed “the arthouse Best Exotic Marigold Hotel“, although being an entirely Indian production frees it from the taint of western exoticism. There’s a rather undeveloped subplot about Rajiv’s sniffy wife Lata (Kulkarni) and their daughter Sunita (Ghosh), who’s inspired by her grandfather to stake her own claim on independence. But the central relationship between Daya and Rajiv is nicely observed and convincingly played, while Bhutiani’s dialogue crackles with good humour that undercuts the potentially morbid theme. Even when it starts to feel formulaic (see if you can predict who dies and in which order), the warm and luminous cinematography by Michael McSweeney and David Huwiler is enough to make you want to pack your bags and head for Varanasi – albeit to a rather more upmarket hotel.