Death comes as the end. Or does it? Is it a process, or prakriya, as the man who runs a lodge in Varanasi calls it? A run-down structure by the ghats is the end point for people who know that their time is up, and a new independent Indian film called Hotel Salvation opens up the proverbial pandora’s box on subjects that we, the living, find tough to deal with. I can’t believe that I have sought out yet another Indian film at the Berlinale (my third in a row, except Gurinder Chadha’s Partition drama Viceroy’s House is perhaps not strictly Indian) but I am glad I did, because the young director, Shubhashish Bhutiani, seems as if he has an old, wise soul and takes us to a place of deep melancholy which is also, at the same time, life-affirming.
The trouble with making a film set in Benaras, and is about life and death, is that it instantly becomes prey to the cliches of worn exotica which panders to a Western audience. The film steers clear, sometimes by inches. While we are given scenes at the ghat, the pyres, the Ganga aarti, which is such a tourist staple, and the boat rides down the mighty river, the story stays firmly on the old man who has intuited that his time has come and his son who is tethered by his duties and love.
The most powerful thread in the film, in fact, is on the relationship between the father and son, and both Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain bring a welcome lived-in feeling to the most primal of units. The son’s resentments come out; the father realises that he was not as fair as he had convinced himself. And they forge something new, something warm between them , feelings that they didn’t quite share in their past.
So is this the beginning of an Indian summer? A fresh coming of Indian independent cinema whose trajectory ebbs and flows, sometimes throwing up films which make you sit up, and sometimes disappoint.
The advantage of showing in festivals like the Berlinale, where fiercely independent cinema gets head-hunted with a passion, is that the films catch global attention, and that’s a good way to take films into spaces they otherwise would never be able to access.
And the changing scenario in India (it’s slow but things are now starting to look different, in a good way), where some mainstream distributors are now betting on smaller, edgier films, ensures that we get to see them as well, in our multiplexes.
So is it all good, with each indie film which gets feted at the big global festivals like the Berlinale finding a release? No, of course not. The numbers are still small, but they are there. Baby steps. But incremental.