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Seeking ‘it’ by the Ganges

25 August 2017

Stephen Brown sees a film by a rising young Indian director

robert braunfeld

Award-winner: the director of Hotel Salvation, Shubhashish Bhutiani

Award-winner: the director of Hotel Salvation, Shubhashish Bhutiani

IN THE film Hotel Salvation (Cert. PG), Daya (Lalit Behl) is an elderly widower who yearns to visit Varanasi. This holy city in the Uttar Pradesh state of north India, on the bank of the Ganges, is a significant place of Hindu pilgrimage. Travellers immerse themselves in the river for reasons primarily associated with redemption.

Daya is responding to a recurrent dream that tells him “It hasn’t happened yet.” When his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), whose family he lives with, asks him what the “it” is, he cannot say. All he knows is that “it” is calling him to do the journey to one of India’s foremost sacred places.

The summons may be genuine, but that doesn’t stop Daya from manipulating the situation. Ever the patriarch, he dragoons Rajiv into taking him there despite the busy job that his son struggles to perform.

The son’s boss asks whether it’s the river or the city that is holy — an interesting question; for, should the answer be the Ganges, then surely anywhere through which it flows is hallowed ground. Either way, the 26-year-old director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s film reinforces a belief a great deal older that we humans need proximity to specific locations in our efforts to find God.

For Daya, that must be Varanasi, not least because it’s a place to which many Hindus go at the point of death. Father and son check into the run-down Hotel Salvation. Guests can only stay a maximum of 15 days, by which time it’s expected they’ll have done the decent thing and died.

A morbid subject has its lighter moments. As far as we know, Daya isn’t ailing at all; so dying could be tricky. Another resident with no intention of dying prematurely just checks in every fortnight under a new name. Her ministrations help Daya realise important things about himself in need of amendment.

Rajiv, bullied all his life by Daya, lightens up, and we learn of certain long-held resentments disappearing. In the words of Dag Hammarskjöld, Daya and Rajiv do not find the Way, but it is the Way that finds them.

The film may come laden with awards (Venice 2016, for example), but I found it laboured and predictable. What it does say about salvation, though, did strike a chord. For Christians, the word typically describes a state of being saved from our worst selves by the love of God as shown us in Christ Jesus. Here the film explores another connotation, one dear to Hinduism and not necessarily absent from Christianity: the idea of salvation as providing people with an open space where we can become truly the selves God would have us be.

Daya and Rajiv move closer to that sense of the innate presence of the divine through becoming more open to all the possibilities that a space sanctified by prayer has to offer. It is something that gives Hotel Salvation universal appeal, whatever one’s creed, and whether the pilgrim’s destination is Santiago de Compostela, Mecca, Jerusalem, or Varanasi.


On current release.

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