Ancient traditions and Bollywood jokes
A person living by a mistaken notion is a universal basis for humor. In Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation
that person is Daya (Lalit Behl), a tall, spry gentleman of 77 who gets it into his head that he is about to die. This fits into the culture in India and can be a source of humor. It wouldn't work here, where Americans avoid the idea of dying as long as they can. Indians are comfortable with the idea of preparing to die by cleansing themselves of sin and care beforehand. It's considered a proper thing to do, nothing morbid about it. It's just a bit silly to get going at it till death is pretty imminent. And for Daya, it apparently isn't.
Shubhashish Bhutiani's first feature. Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation
is sort of a blunt, truly Indian version of the elderly arthouse fare, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
and its sequel. Except this isn't focused at all on British thespians of a certain age seeking cheap comfort in their senior years. When Daya decides he's going to die he insists on going to Varanasi, India's "spiritual capital," to do so, accompanied by his long-suffering (and rather tiresome) son Rajif (Adil Hussain).
Yes, Varanasi really is a place where Indians go to live out their last days. A little research
shows Hotel Salvation actually exists, and, as in this movie, caters to people who are or think themselves on the point of death, but (as here) only allows them a fortnight, after which they are out, dead or alive. It's a pretty shabby place, but it's virtually free, and it's right by the holy Ganges.
What makes this little film interesting to us is how it shows that Indian culture is so different from ours. It's ancient, and filled with healing Hindu ritual, and it mixes life and death more seamlessly than we do. Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than in Varanasi, were boys run riot amid funeral processions and there is a thriving business in "quality" wood - to use on funeral pyres. The Ganges is right at hand, and that's where you get your holy water as well as a glass of water to drink if you like.
The comedy of Salvation Hotel
gives off a strong fragrance of Bollywood slapstick (including too-obvious musical score). The running joke is the way Rajif is forever talking to the boss back at HQ during mealtimes. It's no way to treat a dying man. But the joke doesn't sting, since Daya doesn't seem to be dying. Once in the Salvation Hotel, Daya settles in, watching with fellow inmates a popular TV series called "Flying Saucer" and becoming friendly with widow and longterm resident Vimla (Navnindra Behl). Vimla has broken the two-week rule big time. She came with her husband to die with him but when he "left" her, stayed on - for eighteen years! Vimla makes the place homey.
Beesides the homeliness, the other very Indian thing is that amid the squalor, the rudimentary nature of this place, which is plagued with mice and roaches, there is (through the film's gauzy interiors) an immemorial beauty, a oneness with ancient tradition and ancient deities, qualities this film ends by honoring. The beautiful, subtle last sequences bode well for this very young director, who's only 25. Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation
, 102 mins., debuted at Venice winning a Unesco prize there; also showing at Busan, Dubai, and San Francisco, screened for this review at the SFIFF.
SHOWTIMES SFIFF: 3 pm Apr. ,6 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; 8:15 pm Apr. 7, Roxie Theater.