Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan) is a film that wins you over in its moments of silence. Through the narrative of a multi-generational family drama, director Shubhashish Bhutiani paints an allegory of contemporary India, or rather I should say the many Indias, that are divided between the dichotomies of traditionalism and modernism, duty and love, sacrifices and aspirations.
We caught up with Shubhashish Bhutiani for a chat on the steps of the magnificent State Theatre while his film played inside.
Let’s start by talking about Varanasi as a city and it’s character and what that means for this film.
This film would not exist without the city of Varanasi. The film is based on an idea that only happens in Varanasi, that if you die there you attain salvation. So this movie cannot exist anywhere else in the world. And it plays a very important character. Varanasi is one of the most ancient cities in the world but it’s still a modern city. It’s still torn between its traditional values – the religious mythology that exists behind the walls. And yet, the fact is that the internet is there, cyber-cafes are there. Tourism is a big business there. Death is a business there. So, I think it’s this really interesting city that has so many layers to it which you can’t say about every place for sure. It’s just one of those places – you can’t define Varanasi. And a river flows through it. Even architecturally, the Ghats and everything, it’s such a beautiful city. I think some of the characters embody some of the spirit and some of the layers of the city. Whatever I said about Varanasi are some of the themes the film explores as well.
Touching upon the idea of using the three generations as a narrative device. All three generations in the film are fighting their own inner battles and they all come to a different conclusion by the end. And it all unfolds within that setting – that backdrop of Varanasi. Could you elaborate upon that mix of setting and how that influences the narrative structure?
The film deals with this idea of salvation but in Hindi, the word ‘salvation’ means mukti. And mukti actually means liberation, freedom and has a different context beyond the religious. It can mean that – people will use the word when they get rid off a debt. So they say they are free from the debt. You know? It’s something you get free from. So, I think what I tried to do was to explore what ‘salvation’ means to a girl who is twenty-five, a man who is fifty-two and a man in his seventies. We are getting three different levels because for the three generations, the concept of freedom means something else at that point in their lives..
This leads to this other idea of exploring these two Indias in a sense – caught between the ancient world but also trying to be more modern and the ensuing struggle that happens. Something that each character in the film goes through and which India as a nation is also currently going through right now.
I think the only thing incorrect you said was that there are two Indias. I think there are a hundred, a thousand Indias! Because there are many different variations of it. Rather than seeing it as two lines crossing in the two Indias, it’s more like a web. There is this great image that I love. When you go any Indian city there are these telephone poles and they are never clean. They are always tangled up in something – be it electricity, phones lines or it’s just not been organised very well. And I think that is so interesting. It’s such a great image of the situation. I think it’s chaotic, but it’s also a religious hub and it’s peaceful. These idiosyncrasies and these dichotomies, I don’t think they exist everywhere.
Moving on to the music, I found it fascinating to know that you wrote to Tajdar Junaid’s music. Usually it doesn’t work that way…?
I don’t know how it works for other people. Tajdar is a musician I have been following for a while. And I heard this one track that he had called Dastaan. He has this beautiful album called “What Colour is Your Raindrop” which is soothing, it’s beautiful, it’s minimalistic. It has so much soul in it. And the track Dastaan is so gut-wrenching in a way. And I used to listen to this track and think about the moral dilemma of a son who has to leave his father in this place. That is what I mean when I say it inspired me. It really helps you get – at least his music does, I’m not sure about the film – into this nuanced and complex emotion in a way.
The music is very much made for this film right?
Yes. It’s an original score. I think it is very specific to this film. I don’t think you can necessarily put this soundtrack anywhere.
One thing that struck me about the score was the silence. Those silent moments that punctuate the narrative. Because people forget that music is not only about when you use it but also equally about when not to.
Tajdar and me constantly talk about silence. And that silence can be something between scenes, where you don’t use any music for long periods of time. So, when the music does come on it has a strong impact. It can also be silence between the notes. Tajdar is not scared to pause. You meet a lot of people and they want to put in more music but Tajdar is someone who wants to hold back. He’ll constantly tell me ‘Shubhi, let’s not put music here’. And then, we’ll talk about why he thinks we shouldn’t. I love that. I love him for that, that he can think for the film. That we can think through why we are doing a certain thing. It’s never just random.
I found it difficult to neatly categorise this film, which don’t get me wrong, I really liked. It’s one of my favourite things about the film. But do you think sometimes that urge to categorise can be detrimental to some degree?
It depends from film to film. I feel the existence of genre takes place because people need to start categorising and identifying films. But you can’t do that for every film. You might say – sometimes it works against the film. Sometimes, you tell them it’s a drama, that the subject is death, but it’s not. We just heard moments ago people were laughing in a scene. And you can’t tell people it’s a comedy because then they will come in with the expectation that they are going to laugh the whole time. To make people comfortable with the fact that a film doesn’t need to have just one genre in this case is important. I constantly think about The Shining and its influence in horror for instance. I don’t think it’s only a horror film. I think it’s so many things. It’s about this family. It’s a psychological thriller. Sometimes it’s funny in a dark way as well. It’s also experimental at times – you know in that scene where the gates of the elevator open and a river of blood comes out. I mean, I am talking about The Shining because it’s a very classic example. We put in a box called ‘horror’ but it’s much more than that. For me at least. And the same way this film has elements that you can’t categorise in one box.
What was the experience of working with such an accomplished cast: with Adil, Lalit ji and Geetanjali Kulkarni among others? What was interesting to me here, once again, were those silent moments. These actors do not need dialogue necessarily to convey what they need to. The laughter we heard just now coming from the theatre – it was in that silence. Holding those moments through silence communicates so much in this film.
At least in my life, I don’t know about other people, we are not constantly talking. We are living in the silences. We are living in the in-between moments. More often than not, people are not always saying what they think. But you can see what they feel if you just give them a moment and observe their face or their body language. And that’s where the true emotion of that moment is. And even sometimes with that we cheat. When we don’t want someone to know we are sad we will smile. So, I think these actors – you’re right – while making the film and shooting it, I was constantly trying to cut out lines. Because film is a visual medium. And if you can communicate something with a look then you don’t need the line. I really feel that.
And finally, it seems like the focus is back on to the small towns of India. Young directors such as yourself are sharing stories which weren’t there in the cinema of the ‘90s. The kinds of stories that we’ve grown up with but never got to see on the big screen. What do you think has changed and where are we going?
I think we have a lot of writers and directors coming from small towns who – not just small towns, they are coming from all parts of India – want to share their own stories. I think it’s a very positive trend that’s happened. That we are finally doing this. That we are finally telling stories from our towns, our cities and our problems. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment things changed. What’s amazing about the time right now is that it’s found a way to infiltrate even into the mainstream where you have one of the biggest actors playing a wrestler from Haryana. Salman Khan is doing that. And you have Aamir Khan in Dangal and you have Shah Rukh Khan in Raees playing a Gujarati bootlegger. It’s such a grounded character, you know?
I mean, they are still larger than life. But I’m really enjoying that they are going in different spaces and environments. There are cultures or subcultures on screen that you’ve never seen before, whether it’s wrestling or any other thing. There are a lot of great independent films that are being made where we are going into a more specific kind of space, for example Miss Lovely. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. Or even Ankhon Dekhi. All these films are going into new spaces that we usually don’t get to see in films. And it’s not only young directors. I think it’s these new voices that have emerged. And that is inspiring a lot of younger, first-time filmmakers.
What do you think has changed? The audience? Or has the formula finally broken down?
Cinema exists in an ecosystem. It can never exist on the basis of filmmakers saying that we are going to make film like this. I don’t think we are in a strong place just yet in terms how consistently we are able to do this but I think audiences have started to go to these kind of films. And filmmakers are feeling more encouraged to make these kind of films. If audiences go then it’s easier to finance such films and then more people will make it. It’s a cycle. It’s an ecosystem. You take out one thing and it falls apart. You can never say it’s just one thing.