Friday 25 August 2017

Where the river ends: "Hotel Salvation"

The BFI's current India on Film season has done much to illustrate how, even in these commercialised times, there remains a good deal more to the country's cinema than those Bollywood extravaganzas that sing and dance their way into our multiplexes every weekend. Shubhashish Bhutiani's comic drama Hotel Salvation offers an accomplished case in point: the family at its centre, the Kumars, have far too much weighing down on them to consider tripping the light fantastic, not least an ageing patriarch, Daya (Lalit Behl), who has decided the time is right for him to die. How he goes about this is cause for both stress and hilarity. Forcibly removing his overworked middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) from his office cubicle, Daya hails a taxi for the pair of them to set out for the eccentric institution of the title, a halfway house between this life and the next situated on the banks of the Ganges - not a million miles from Masaan territory - where oldtimers go to spend their final days. 

What it is not, pointedly, is a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, blessed as that destination was with a Fox Searchlight budget: the paint's peeling, other residents fall between dotty and woebegone, while the shifty proprietor (Anil K. Rastogi) is insistent Rajiv should rent his own room for no small fee. (It's not surprising this hotel should have the reputation of being a portal between worlds: none of its wiring looks up to code.) Yet this extended spa weekend forces squabbling man and boy to look Death - a mutual foe - in the eye, and here's where the film becomes both funny and poignant. We derive a sense of the pair's contrasting worldviews just from that first, fraught taxi ride, Rajiv insisting their driver speed up so that he can knuckle down again, Daya urging patience, so that he can enjoy whatever time he has left. The relaxed nature of life in the sticks - nightly boat trips, breathing exercises, marijuana lassis - give Bhutiani himself time to examine the roles these men were born into, and those they assumed; it's soon clear they haven't talked properly for years, because of the resentment that bubbles up when they do. (Rajiv seems fated to continue the approach with his twentysomething daughter, who has ideas other than being married off at the first available opportunity - a subplot that can feel a bit like a well-meaning footnote.) 

Generally, Bhutiani's work here is observational and quietly revealing: the rebonding process he describes is authentically tricky in its emotional labour, but never forced. Like many Indian filmmakers working beyond Bollywood, he gets a lot more out of his locations by using them not to frame glamorous stars - Behl and Hussain are unmistakably lived-in character performers - but a centuries-old way of life (and death), a pre-existing philosophy that appears a good deal more in touch with nature and the elements than the obsessive development of Modi's India (or May's Britain, or Trump's America) would perhaps allow. Either way, the time and space Bhutiani opens up before the audience allows us to notice some exceptionally skilful and dignified playing, how the years seem to drop off the leads once they're removed from the status quo and obliged to embrace the moment, how the furrows in their brows come to be reclaimed as laughter lines. Already enshrined as a crowdpleaser on the festival circuit - and a worthy successor to 2013's The Lunchbox - it's never sentimental, and finally very touching: a restorative 100 minutes, to say the least.

Hotel Salvation opens in selected cinemas from today. 

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