Hotel Salvation director: ‘I like to watch a little comedy every day. If I didn’t, how would I maintain sanity?

Director Shubhashish Bhutiani reveals what inspired him while making his affecting debut film Hotel Salvation, about an ageing father who travels with his son to the holy city of Varanasi.

22 August 2017

By Joseph Walsh

Hotel Salvation (2016)

At 26, Kolkata-born Shubhashish Bhutiani is already making waves as a director. Aged 21, he wrote and directed Kush, a Venice prize-winning short film about the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots following her death. Now his feature debut, Hotel Salvation, arrives in the UK with a shelf full of awards to its name, including a prize from UNESCO.

Hotel Salvation follows Daya (Lalit Behl) who, following what he believes to be a prophetic dream, becomes convinced that death is only weeks away and so decides to travel to the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, to die in peace. His dutiful son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), has mixed feelings about his father’s decision but decides to put work on hold and travel with his father. What plays out is a touching, delicate exploration of a father-son relationship, told with gentle humour against the backdrop of an ancient city coming to terms with modernity, as well as a frank and open-hearted exploration of what it means to die.

Ahead of the film’s nationwide release, we sat down with Bhutiani to discuss some of the influences that fed into his debut.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

In the Mood for Love (2000)

“This film always comes to my mind, not just with Hotel Salvation, but also when I am walking down the street,” explains Bhutiani. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, moving drama concerns a couple who move into a crowded apartment block and gradually realise that their respective spouses are having an affair. “I first watched it at film school when I was 18, and honestly every time I see it I like it more,” says Bhutiani.

However, it was Michael Galasso’s score that was the central influence on Bhutiani: “I wrote the script while listening to Michael Galasso’s score. I respect and like his music a lot.” Like Hotel Salvation, Wong Kar-wai’s film focuses on the human element, featuring a few characters in rooms talking. Likewise Bhutiani, who builds intimacy between his characters in confined spaces, allows the viewer to focus on minute gestures and simple actions, be it eating food or listening to music.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Tokyo Story (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 film bears a lot of similarities to Hotel Salvation in the way it examines the clash of traditions, so it’s unsurprising that it was a film that came to Bhutiani’s mind when making his debut feature. In Hotel Salvation, Rajiv is something of a workaholic, always trying to please his boss, but equally duty bound to his father. Alongside this father/son relationship, we have the contrast of the contemporary world with that of the ancient city of Varanasi, where modernity creeps in from the side, expressed in Rajiv’s all-too-recognisable addiction to his mobile phone, even at meal times.

As well as its representation of cross-generational relationships, Bhutiani recognises how Ozu represented the old and new faces of a city, which is something he also explores, showing how a physical space exists in different ways for different people. Above all, Bhutiani appreciated the tranquillity of Ozu’s carefully constructed work. “There is also a stillness to this film, where every scene feels carefully composed, and there is a stillness to every moment.”

Fleabag and Louis CK: the comedy of Hotel Salvation

One thing that Hotel Salvation has in abundance is a wry sense of humour. Yes, Daya is eking out his days in a hotel praying and waiting for death, but there is also a great deal of life within this sombre setting. There is plenty of dark humour, something which was important to Bhutiani as a great lover of comedy.

Fleabag (2016–)

“This is very much my sense of humour,” he explains. “I like tongue-in-cheek humour, I like irony, and I like dark humour.” However, his eclectic taste in comedy may surprise some, ranging from Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete to the BBC’s Fleabag, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and on to the surreal world of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s Rick and Morty. “I like to watch a little comedy every day. I wonder if I didn’t, how I would maintain sanity?”

The chaos and the clarity of Varanasi

Hotel Salvation (2016)

The holy city of Varanasi looms ever present in Hotel Salvation, as much a character in the film as Daya and his son. The city on screen is shown by turns as vibrant and tranquil, with moments of stillness as Daya walks through the streets or practices his breathing exercises in the early morning. For Bhutiani it was about “recognising what each space felt like”, and capturing “the dichotomy of this very quiet hotel on the banks of a river in a very chaotic city”.

Above all though he wanted to show a different side to the clichéd India that is often described with words like ‘colourful’ and ‘lively’. “I felt that while you can’t neglect the reality, and you have to show the vibrancy, I wanted to show this other side. In Indian cities, we know how loud they are, or what the atmosphere is like, but we never see empty, quiet streets, I wanted to show that.” 

Shubhashish Bhutiani: 10 of his favourite films

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)
Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Shubhashish Bhutiani holding Blu-rays and DVDs of some of his favourite films in the BFI Shop
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