Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation)

I’d be having a stern word with whoever came up with this blurb “Forget The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; India’s new must-visit accommodation for the elderly is Hotel Salvation. Take a visit in this award-winning debut.

Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) is a beautifully made contemplative story of family, guilt, love, and finally death.

Dayanand (Lalit Behl) is from that blissful generation of men who don’t need to think about whether they are interrupting or are they being too demanding. Everything revolves around him. When he decides his time has come, there is no way to rationalise or compromise with him. Dayanand sulks and insists he will go to Varanasi alone because he is ready and therefore it is his time and that is where he will die. His son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) reluctantly commits to going with his father on what might be his last journey. They travel to Varanasi, and check in at the ramshackle Mukti Bhawan where people await their death by the holy Ganges. The efficient owner Mishraji (Anil K Rastogi) tells them he only allows a stay of 15 days and Dayanand is sure that will be enough. As it happens, Mishraji has a loophole whereby residents can change their names every 15 days. But he assures Rajiv the time is indeed close, although he can’t divulge any more details.

Lalit Behl is by turns childlike, childish, arrogant, demanding, apologetic and affectionate. Dayanand is not used to showing weakness in front of his family, but seems less uptight with his peers at the Hotel Salvation. Daya immediately immerses himself in the daily rituals and starts making friends with the other residents. He is there to actively prepare for his death and welcomes the process. He joins in writing obituaries and practicing yoga, and is addicted to a TV soap they watch every night. He finds community in the house. He is occasionally over the top but only when Daya is in a heightened state, and I thought every note rang true for the grumpy patriarch.

Vimlaji (Navnindra Behl) has genuinely prepared to go but can still enjoy every day she spends on earth. She says she will go when God calls, and has been waiting for 18 years. She is vivacious, the kind of lady you’d have tea and a natter with on a long train trip, but has a calm focus on her task of letting go. I liked her acceptance without finding her passively fatalistic. Vimla’s rapport with Daya is lovely, and I read somewhere the actors are married in real life which may be a factor in the warm familiarity and physical ease around each other.

Rajiv is awkward and appalled by what he sees as squalor and backward thinking, and wants his dad to either come home or go to a hospital. Rajiv is almost like a child again, hanging around on the fringes of adult conversation and not quite being able to participate. He wants to be there to do the right thing, but he doesn’t want to be there at all. He is intimidated by his father, and calls from his wife and demanding boss don’t help matters. Adil Hussain is lugubrious, tetchy, and a little fragile as Rajiv. He is in a rut at work and at home, and his father’s death plans are highly inconvenient. He doesn’t see the value in what Daya is doing, thinking of it as taking him away from work. But he starts to open up and shows that his frustration is driven by love and a maybe a bit of an inferiority complex. His scenes with Lalit Behl are emotionally complex yet very contained. There are few grand gestures or raised voices, and the acting is perfectly aligned.

Rajiv’s wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) struggles with a demanding old father-in-law and an absentee husband. Rajiv and Lata aren’t wishing for Dayanand to die but they do wish they could get some idea of how long this phase will last. When Dayanand performs the cow donation ritual, it is life and death to him, but to the family it is just an interruption. Lata wants life to be normal, unexceptional, and organised. She seems brusque but when people need her affection it is there. Her scenes with Rajiv run from shockingly direct conversation to wordless empathy and she is the bedrock of the family.

There is often a point in family crises where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Everyone has their idea on what is right and what everyone else should be doing. That tension is drawn out very well, mostly through the character of Sunita (Palomi Ghosh). She is a bright and warm girl, and has a cheeky rapport with her granddad. Daya is less strict and demanding of her and Rajiv quietly absorbs the difference in how his family interact with each other and with him. When Sunita comes to visit, Dayanand and Vimlaji sneak a bhang lassi with her because it’s Varanasi and of course they should. The three of them giggle through the day and each takes comfort in the camaraderie. When Daya hints that she might not be happy with her upcoming engagement Rajiv brushes it off. Later he confronts Dayanand about why he was made to do what was expected rather than follow his passion. Rajiv is more like his dad than he realises.

Tajdar Junaid’s soundtrack complements ambient sound of prayers and TV and kids playing. Bhutiani and his crew largely eschewed the more sensationalised Varanasi cremation clichés and instead dwell on the daily rituals, the bustle of the narrow back streets, the changing light, and the overwhelming feeling that life is a cycle. Mukti Bawan is somewhat similar in content (if not in tone) to Piku, with a dominant patriarch on a journey only he comprehends and a family who don’t quite realise they are being given precious time to say goodbye.

 

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Lootera

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Lootera is a restrained and melancholy romance, a love story between two flawed adults set against turbulent times. Based on O Henry’s story ‘The Last Leaf’ it is a quiet and introspective film for the most part, with few false steps by writer/director Vikramaditya Motwane.

It’s the 1950s. A rich Zamindar and his consumptive daughter Pakhi live in their ancestral village and seem oblivious to the impending change to their legal status. Varun, an archaeologist, arrives to help excavate a site near the family temple. Love blooms between the daughter and outsider, and their wedding is arranged. But Varun is not what he seems, and betrayal and ruin intervene. Summer turns to winter and Pakhi’s life is torn apart. Time passes before she and Varun cross paths again and Pakhi wants some kind of justice, some reparation for all she has lost.

 

Prior to this I had only seen Sonakshi Sinha in Dabangg and an appearance in OMG Oh My God so I hadn’t seen a lot of her acting skills put to the test. She is exceptional as the indulged rich girl Pakhi. Her romance with Varun (Ranveer Singh) develops immediately but slowly as Pakhi finds ways for them to spend time together. There is very little dialogue and Sonakshi builds Pakhi’s character through her expressions and deportment. In one scene Varun is driving Pakhi home and in the space of seconds Sonaskhi’s sparkling eyes and smile conveys flirtatiousness, amusement at his reaction and quiet joy at her own happiness. Pakhi never hesitated to lie to get what she wanted, but she was not a truly bad person, just a girl whose father indulged her every whim. In the first half of the film Pakhi wears rich colours and pretty light cotton sarees with delicate decorations. She dreams of being a writer and can only see a future in which she is happy and fulfilled.

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Once things take a turn for the worse, she moves to Dalhousie. The cold bright mountain exteriors and the dim interiors frame her in darkness as do the dark maroons and blacks that she wears. Sonakshi seems weighed down and heavier in her tread, her eyes and her speech. Death is looming and Pakhi does nothing to prolong her own life. She can’t write, she can’t move past the loss of her father and home. She is just waiting.

 

Ranveer Singh is Varun. He is not exactly what he seems and nor is his friend Deb (Vikrant Massey). They are thieves and the Zamindar is their latest target. Based on his previous roles, I didn’t expect such restraint and internalised emotion from Ranveer. Varun comes across as someone who knows what he wants but is overwhelmed by fear and obligation. He tries to break things off with Pakhi in an effort to not make the eventual betrayal any worse but really, the damage had been done. He is a very modern creature and lives in a dog eat dog world, his sharp edges a contrast to Pakhi’s romantic softness. Varun is always wary, and Ranveer shows the struggle between heart and logic, and the ever present tension of being ready for things to go pear shaped. Varun’s character doesn’t transform as Pakhi’s does, but he reveals more of his true self over time. There is a definite sense that Varun could be a decent enough guy in all but his means of earning, but his ingrained drive for self-preservation would override any finer feelings.

 

Ranveer and Sonakshi have great chemistry together. Their characters are sometimes confused, sometimes unpleasant but mostly just relatable in their uncertainty and hopes. The initial relationship between Pakhi and Varun is flirty but heartfelt and both actors show the deepening of feelings through small gestures and their gaze. When they met again I could believe Pakhi’s conflicted feelings towards Varun as she was also coming to terms with her own mortality. Varun saw a chance to do something right finally. It wouldn’t change how he had betrayed her before, but he could fight to let his better nature prevail this once. It’s an intense relationship, passionate and at times fuelled by anger as well as love. Sonakshi looked perfect as a beauty from the 50s and Ranveer was a modern wide boy, each visually representing the changing tide of society.

The story is dominated by Pakhi and Varun although there is a small and effective support cast. Shirin Guha and Arif Zakaria are very good in the summery first half. The charismatic Adil Hussain and ever reliable Divya Dutta make strong appearances in the dramatic conclusion.

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I saw this with a friend who hadn’t read the O Henry story and she asked if there was a clear link,  and there is albeit only a small part of the narrative. It is when the film is closest to the story that I think it shows weaknesses. A clumsy conversation along the lines of ‘Can you paint leaves?’ ‘Why yes I can’ occurs early on. There is a needless scene of Ranveer dangling from a tree branch after nearly falling that was surely only there to show him off as a ‘movie hero’. It was a momentary lapse from the beautifully internalised character based tone that made Lootera so engaging.

I’ve never been a big fan of Amit Trivedi and his emo guitar tweedling. The soundtrack works best in the first half where the music reflects a more optimistic and celebratory mood (e.g. Sawar Loon). Once things got more dramatic I found the songs a little intrusive and unnecessary.

The camera work (under Mahendra J Shetty) and set design is very beautiful yet not ostentatiously so. I rarely felt distracted from the central action yet the locations and scenery gave a richness and depth to the sense of place. I did find myself admiring the architecture and layout of Dalhousie in one pivotal scene but I can only watch a chase scene for so long before my attention wanders!

Lootera requires patience as the story is shown rather than told. There is minimal dialogue so there is nowhere for the actors to hide, and they deliver beautiful characterisations. That is not to say the characters are inarticulate – there are some excellent dialogue driven scenes. Motwane’s intelligent direction gives his actors the time and space they need to breathe life into the story. I thought his much lauded Udaan was a very average film that garnered praise more for the subject than the execution so I was hesitant about Lootera. But it is a beauty. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve been feeling the dearth of interesting adult lead characters in Hindi films and want a more layered and complex set of relationships.

English Vinglish

Finally Sridevi returns to films! A low key and female centric family drama, English Vinglish allows ample opportunity to show off her great range and perfect timing. Gauri Shinde has written a nice story with a whiff of “Shirley Valentine” about it, and directs with assurance.

Shashi (Sridevi) is a wife and mother, taken for granted by her family – husband Satish (Adil Hussain), bitchy teenage daughter Sapna (a very convincing Navika Kotia) and son Sagar (the endearingly cheeky Shivansh Kotia). She is a good cook and keeps a lovely home as well as running a business making and selling ladoos, barely having a moment to herself. Shashi is accomplished and loving, but that is what is expected of her so she gets no credit for that. The family mock her for her lack of polish and poor English. The cheap shots are also a way of father and daughter bonding and excluding Shashi. Shashi is gracious and rarely retaliates, instead letting her beautifully expressive eyes show the pain.

When Shashi’s New York based niece Meera is about to be married, Shashi is sent ahead of her family to help with the preparations. Nervous at leaving her kids and husband, she is forced to go where she can be useful. Again, her feelings are ignored for the sake of convenience.

Shashi stays with her sister and niece Radha (the sparky Priya Anand) and spends her days missing her family at home. Daunted by America and feeling left out, Shashi secretly enrols in a dodgy “Learn English in 4 Weeks” class.

 

This is where the film detours into “Mind Your Language” territory. Taught by David (played by one of the worst actors I have ever seen, and I am including Mimoh in that list) and along with her fellow students, Shashi begins to come out of her shell. One of the students keen to get her right out of her shell is the dishy French chef, Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou). The tentative stirrings of romance between Laurent and Shashi are very well played even if his lines are cheesy.

The rest of the class start off as a collection of broad stereotypes, but the actors develop their characters really nicely. Sumeet Vyas, Rajeev Ravindranathan and Maria Romano are particularly good fun. I also liked the way food played a role in communication and relationships.

The story isn’t really about learning English as a road to happiness, but it is about getting your mojo back and gaining the respect of your loved ones. There is a theme of English language undermining Hindi and excluding people in their own country, but really she could have taken a pottery class or something else.

 

Much as I cheered when Shashi managed to navigate her way into the city or order a coffee, and I loved seeing her grow in self esteem and happiness, I have a slight problem with the character. She was so passive aggressive, even considering of her lack of confidence. Why make Radha cover for her so she could sneak to class? Why not just ask her sister to keep it quiet as a surprise for the family or at least not ask Radha to be an accomplice. Telling Laurent about her family in Hindi seemed at least partly a lie by omission rather than purely an outpouring of the heart given their level of conversational skills. Her final speech was two-thirds guilt-trip inducing perfect filmi Ma (and the opposite of the real situation) and finally one-third honesty about what she believed was needed for happiness. It made me like her less than I wanted to and I felt heavily manipulated at times as she is clearly meant to be the morally good person in the frame.

 

Shashi lost me at times, but Sridevi never did. Her performance was beautifully nuanced. As her self-confidence grew, Shashi’s expressions became less guarded and her eyes lit up. When Sridevi smiled she was radiant. I really wanted Shashi to be happy, despite my reservations. I think this was more about Sridevi than Shashi though – I am so happy to see her working in films again.

The music by Amit Trivedi mostly ranges from bland to twee. I’ve never been a big fan of his and the tweedly emo guitar thing is not my style. The songs are mostly in the background or used in montages of Shashi looking sad. It was all appropriate to the tone of the film but I won’t be listening to the soundtrack anytime soon.

Whether it was Gauri Shinde or former co-star Sridevi who won him over, Amitabh Bachchan makes a fun appearance. He plays a rambunctious man of the world and gave Shashi some much needed confidence and sensible advice. Priya Anand is a standout. I liked her sassy style in her debut (Leader) and she was very natural as the lively college student Radha. Adil Hussain is also excellent as the thoughtless Satish, and the children are perfect for their roles. Maybe too perfect – that girl is a right little cow. The random extras at the wedding were energetic and got into the dances.

The visual design is excellent. Shashi’s house in Pune looked lived in and real, even if her saris were a bit too fabulous. I drooled over some of her outfits; all of them in fact, except the dark pink one (I don’t like pink) and the mauve (it was a bit too shiny). The NRIs lived in a very American suburban house with Indian touches in the decor. It was a nice representation of their life abroad and the connection to home.

I saw this with four friends and at least three of them cried several times during the movie and we all laughed a lot. It’s a film I would have loved to see with my mother and then go out with her for coffee. It’s a well crafted film, with a good story and some fine performances. Despite some issues, I highly recommend it. Welcome back Sridevi!