There’s an over-familiar quality to this movie about an elderly man coming to terms with his mortality that is both exacerbated and dismissed by its Indian setting. The story’s particulars—a man’s reckoning with the inevitable, his son’s reactionary intransigence, the comic second act that attempts to soften the blow of death before giving in to its terrifying inevitability—don’t differ substantially from other films of this sort, but by placing it all in the context of the holy city of Varnasi on the sacred Ganges River, it becomes more edifying, even, presumably, to Hindus.
The old man, Daya (Lalit Behl), is a grumpy former school teacher who realizes one day, despite what seems exceptionally fine health, that his time has come. He lives with his son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), and Rajiv’s wife and college-age daughter, in an arrangement that is civil but hardly comfortable. Rajiv is the kind of nervous businessman who can’t stop thinking of work even when more pressing family problems come forward, like his father’s insistence on traveling to Varnasi so that he will be there when he dies. As it happens, there’s a hotel there that caters to such needs, though there’s a time limit to how long a guest can stay. If the guest does not die within this time period he has to leave, or re-register under a different name.
Rajiv, under the impression that it would not look good if he let his father go on his last journey alone, grudgingly accompanies Daya to Varnasi, where he will attend to his business by remote devices that don’t always work the way they’re supposed to. Complicating the matter is the fact that his daughter, Sunita (Palomi Ghosh), has been promised to another in an arranged marriage but is resisting mightily. Rajiv’s wife, Lata (Geetanjali Kulfarni), accuses Rajiv of “taking a vacation” and leaving her to deal with this domestic crisis by herself. Needless to say, while in Varnasi, Rajiv has much to distract him, which is fine with Daya, who didn’t want him to come in the first place.
Director Shubhashish Bhutiani has obviously seen enough Western movies to understand how these kind of uncomfortable situations can be spun into comedy, but by presenting them in what is basically a documentary about the traditional Hindu way of dying he raises not only the film’s profile as a work with something to teach, but also its dramatic potential. As days turn into weeks and Rajiv is forced to improvise in order to be with his father on his deathbed but also keep his family and livelihood afloat, we meet others in similar situations whose contrasting experiences give the story a fully realized, multidimensional character. And like a good orchestra conductor, Bhutiani brings it all to a harmonious coda that is satisfying without being predictable. It’s a subtle film that truly earns its sentiments.
In Hindi. Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall, Jimbocho (03-3262-5252).
Hotel Salvation home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Red Carpet Moving Pictures