Big dreams ride on small budget

Director Shubhashish Bhutiani wants to take his debut feature, Hotel Salvation, to the masses rather than confine it to the festival circuit

For an independent debut feature film, made with a ‘micro budget’, director Shubhashish Bhutiani doesn’t want Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan) to remain small in its reach or impact.

It premiered at the Venice International Film Festival , where Bhutiani was awarded the Prix Enrico Fulchignoni by the UNESCO jury. Now, a few days before travelling with the film to the Busan International Film Festival, Bhutiani is hoping Hotel Salvation will soon get a regular release in India rather than remaining confined to the festival circuit. “That is my desire, but it is still in process,” he says.

Lifelike film

What he is sure of is that Hotel Salvation is not a niche film. If the trailer is anything to go by, the film may find it quite easy to connect with the audiences: both here and abroad. It is the story of a patriarch who is certain that his end is near and wants to go to Varanasi to die. It is about the impact of this decision on his family, the little dramas it leads on to in their lives. And no, it feels far from dark or morbid. “It’s very lifelike,” says Bhutiani, sitting in his airy home-cum-office near Bandra’s Mehboob Studio.

Set in one of the guest houses of Varanasi, where the dying wait for death and salvation, it could have easily become exotica for the West or a downbeat treatise on mortality. But what you see in the trailer is the promise of a universal, bittersweet, heart-warming family film about a father-son journey, physical as well as a passage into their own relationship.

Funny in parts

Most of all, the film promises to be disarmingly amusing. “Some parts are very funny,” admits Bhutiani, “But it is not the ‘lets put a joke here’ kind of film.” The humour emerges from the situation itself.

Bhutiani’s film was one of the four projects selected for 4th Biennale College — Cinema (2015-2016), an initiative of Biennale di Venezia for promoting new filmmaking talent. It was selected for financing out of 12 shortlisted projects. The other three were from Argentina, Venezuela and Italy. Hotel Salvation has been produced by Sanjay Bhutiani and Sajida Sharma.

Bhutiani studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His first film, a short called Kush, was set in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and was about a bus journey back home with 17 school children, one of whom was a Sikh boy. The effort earned him a National Award and won the Orizzonti Prize for Best Short Film at its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival.

Despite being a small film — which called for an efficient use of the limited budget and resources — Hotel Salvation itself was never compromised on and was shot on the same scale as any other feature.

Stellar cast

Another strength has been the stellar cast. Filmmaker Kanu Behl’s father, theatre actor Lalit Behl (last seen in Kanu’s own Titli), plays the domineering father, and the well-known actor Adil Hussain is his middle-aged son. Geetanjali Kulkarni, unforgettable as the public prosecutor in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, plays the daughter-in-law. She may not have a lead role, but brings a strong presence to the character. “You think about her even when she is not in a scene,” says Bhutiani. Palomi Ghosh, scintillating as Lorna in Bardroy Barretto’s superhit Konkani musical Nachom-ia Kumpasar, and Lucknow actor Anil Rastogi, best remembered as the grandfather Surya Chauhan in Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade, play the other important characters.

Bhutiani hadn’t seen Ghosh in the Konkani musical, but encountered her at the Film Bazaar at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last year. The actor was present in a session with A.R. Rahman where she did an impromptu performance of some Konkani jazz numbers. Bhutiani remembers her spirit, how “she was egging on and working the crowd”. That moment she was on to join the film.

Right combination

Looking back, the director also feels he hit just the right father-son combination in Behl and Hussain. Bhutiani admits thinking through characters and actors while writing, but leaving it open for auditions so that actors would surprise him. “I wanted to have a core of very strong actors and surround them with unknown, untouched faces,” he says. But there was one ground rule: they should understand the film’s sensibility.

The story for Hotel Salvation came to Bhutiani on a backpacking trip, where he visited a few of Varanasi’s salvation guest houses and talked to the people there. “They had their own universe and rules and there were as many stories as the inmates,” he says. One of them stayed with him and took the shape of the film.

It was the audience response in Venice that brought in the confidence. Bhutiani thought that just a few would turn up to see his tiny, unknown Indian film. “I thought we will all just have a nice dinner after the screening and go to bed.” But he found the theatre filling up, the audience responding to the film and giving it a standing ovation at the end. “It’s a movie that meets the audience half way; they bring their own lives to it.”

But he is still hesitant about deciding on the distribution partner. “We need right people to take care of the film,” he says. The director feels that it is easier to make independent films in India now and cinema at large is growing stronger in content. However, in spite of that, getting a film to people is still a challenge. How he surmounts it, the next few months will tell.

Meanwhile, the self-professed film fanatic remembers being influenced by SRK, how his rise from the underdog to the star inspired his generation of viewers. He wants a little more headroom to begin on the two new films he has in mind; one of them isn’t even set in India, nor is it about Indians. Isn’t that a risk of sorts? “I am 100 per cent Indian, but love discovering other cultures. It is all about getting the emotional aspect right,” he says. “And isn’t Woody Allen also making his films in Europe now?”

Limitless ambition

Bhutiani doesn’t want to have any limitations when it comes to the kind of films he wants to make. “I don’t want to feel restricted. I could do a horror film tomorrow,” he says. What about a film with the childhood idol SRK? “My inner kid will find it very cool,” he smiles and then points to the left of his house, the direction in which lies SRK’s Mannat and then right where sits Salman Khan’s Galaxy. In the middle of the two superstars, Bhutiani has just begun taking off on his cinematic flight.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 2:43:19 PM |

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