Daya (Lalit Behl) has had that dream again, and it is trying to tell him something, he believes. He is an elderly man of seventy-seven who lives with his middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his family, but at the breakfast table he tells him he feels it is time for a change, and this news disturbs his offspring. Why? It's down to Daya's dream of following himself as a boy through a deserted village, the place of his childhood, which he takes to mean it is a portent of his imminent death, and what he now must do is travel to the city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges to prepare for that eventuality. Rajiv recognises how serious he is, and that he must go with him on this journey...
But is Daya about to die, or is he simply having trouble sleep and is the picture of health? On reaching the city, they are confronted with the manager of the Hotel Salvation who tells them Daya has two weeks to pass away, if he doesn't then it was not meant to be and he has to go home again. Here you can discern the curious, comic but serious tone of the film, inspired by writer and director Shubhashish Bhutani and his views of this city which has become so obsessed with death over the centuries that it has become its main source of business, so numerous are the Indians who visit to pass away, and the tourists whose morbid curiosity means big bucks (or rupees) for the region.
You can see from some angles it's possible to be spiritually elevated by such a state of affairs, yet from others it's possible to be highly cynical, depending on your own set of beliefs, if indeed you have any. Bhutani was more generous to the place than a more jaundiced eye would have allowed, and found great humanity in its denizens, the ones who were present for the religious motives at least, the tourists were not given a huge amount of coverage as if their custom was welcome, but they were there for the wrong reasons if they were keen to rubberneck where the dying and dead were concerned. Thus Daya was a kind of figure of fun, but a source of emotional warmth as well.
He seems to have mixed feelings about his son, anyway, who was what the Japanese would call a salaryman, immersed in his work often to the detriment of appreciating the world as it passed him by. Yes, it was the old spiritual awakening yarn mixed with the reconciliation between old (the believers, the traditionalists) and young (the sceptics, the prosaic in the here and now) and to that end Hotel Salvation was a gentle and charming offering, contributing to a form that was not perhaps too original, but nevertheless could be the source of laughter of recognition, and the misty eyes of recognition as well, no matter your relationship with your parents, assuming it was not absolutely horrendous and fraught with painful memories. Everyone has some painful memories of their parents, after all, even if it was the absence of their presence.
Daya and Rajiv encounter a collection of people in the hotel similarly convinced of their doom, but whether Daya is genuinely not long for this world is a mystery the film holds back for an answer to until the last act. There is a part earlier on when he has taken an abrupt turn for the worst, having been perfectly healthy up to that point, and in his fever he tearfully reconciles with his son, but the next morning he is fit as a flea once again in one of the movie's humorous moments. This wondering whether there was a spiritual, even cosmic, dimension to life when the mystery was being drained out of it by living in such a technology-heavy society was critical to the effect here, and Bhutani did not necessarily draw a definitive conclusion, leaving an answer in the mind of the beholder depending on their own outlook. If this meandered increasingly as it went along, it was nevertheless good company, something different from Indian cinema to illustrate it was not all Bollywood song and dance. Music by Tajdar Junaid.
[Those features on the BFI's Special Edition Blu-ray:
Hotel Salvation Q&A(2017, 26 mins): director Shubhashish Bhutiani and producer Sanjay Bhutiani in conversation with Gaylene Gould
The Making of Hotel Salvation (2017, 12 mins): behind the scenes footage of the cast and crew on location in Varanasi
Original international trailer (2 mins) | Original UK Trailer (2 mins) | Original UK teaser (1 min)
Kush (2013, 25 mins): Shubhashhish Bhuitiani's award-winning debut short film
Panorama of Calcutta (1899, 2 mins): one of the earliest films to be shot in India, showing the ghats of Varanasi
Illustrated booklet with essays by Kaleem Aftab and Narman Ramachandran, and full film credits.]