Watching Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel got me thinking about hotels in our films. If you’ve never thought about it before, take a moment to close your eyes and remember what hotels were like in the imagined universe of Hindi films until the 1990s. What comes to mind? Men in suits and ladies in saris looking on in appreciation or bemusement as a scantily-clad young woman sashays expertly between the tables? Sometimes the dancer was the only bright spot in a dimly-lit space. Hindi film hotels were glossy fronts for dark dealings of all sorts — from the shady hotel in Howrah Bridge (1958) to Hotel Hilltop, from where murderous train robberies are orchestrated in The Train (1970).
As Jerry Pinto puts it in his book on Helen, Bombay cinema saw hotels “as a dreadful western invention where other ‘western inventions’ — smuggling, illicit or extramarital sex, the black market — thrived”. Respectable people, even if they went on holiday, had holiday homes to go to. Heroes only went to hotel bars for strategic purposes — in search of the vamp (Miss Ruby, Lily or Kitty, the route to the villain’s gang) — or else to drown their sorrows in alcohol when jilted by their lady-love. As the ’70s and ’80s wore on, what had been the preserve of the vamp and the villain emerged as the site of the discotheque, where a guitar-strapped hero might perform for a crazed, youthful audience, or where a misguided sister or a too-modern wife might display her waywardness by dancing with strangers.
Since most of the mainstream Hindi film audience had never been in one, it’s remarkable how much the hotel dominated our cinematic imagination. Or perhaps, it wasn’t surprising at all. Hotels were a fantasy world, which in the consumer desert of pre-liberalisation India, was both desirable and necessarily condemnable. A film that unfolded in a hotel was exciting, but the hero and heroine had to steer clear of the silken debauchery of the milieu. So Teesri Manzil (1966) was a murder mystery in which the hero must clear his name. By the time Namak Halaal (1982) hit the theatres, it was possible to combine the hotel-as-thriller-locale with a broad comic act from Amitabh Bachchan.
In the 2000s , seedy hotels continue to form part of thrillers — Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Talaash (2012). But sexcapades in them are now also a frequent site of comedy — the famous Hotel Decent in Jab We Met(2007) is the first of many. Bittoo Boss (2012) even had a photographer using a Shimla hotel to secretly shoot honeymoon porn. Still, a whiff of scandal continues to cling to the hotel. The Kay Kay Menon-Rajpal Yadav starrer Benny Aur Babloo (2010) pits the bleeding heart humanity of a dance bar against the evils of a five-star hotel. In 2014’s under-watched Bobby Jasoos, when Vidya Balan and her fiancé are ‘caught’ by her conservative Hyderabadi father, it’s their emergence from a hotel that makes all explanations useless. Balan’s other outing this year, Shaadi ke Side Effects, begins with a couple using the inherent disreputability of hotels to spice up their marriage. By the film’s end, hotels have emerged as integral to secret lives less innocuous than a play-acting married couple’s.
What I can’t think of is a single Hindi film in which a hotel is not just a locale but the emblem of an era, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. When we first see it, the hotel of Anderson’s film has come down in the world, but it still has a threadbare majesty. And the multi-layered flashback, moving from candy-coloured animated jailbreaks to the black and white of war, evokes the civilisation that the hotel once embodied. No amount of extramarital sex within its walls can rob the Grand Budapest of its grandeur. It probably helps that the spirit of the film — zany, not always honest yet somehow always admirable — is the inimitable maitre d’hotel Gustav (Ralph Fiennes in his most freewheeling performance yet). For Gustav, as for his appointed successor Zero, the hotel is not a career but a vocation.
The closest we’ve got is the Bengali film adaptation of Sankar’s bestselling novel Chowringhee (1968) and Uttam Kumar’s much-remembered turn as Satya Sadhan ‘Sata’ Bose, debonair receptionist of the Shahjahan Hotel. Sata’s initiation of Sankar, like Gustav’s of Zero, is the audience’s entry point into the hotel’s inner life. This is 1960s India, and hotel guests are either foreigners (doing important things like eradicating smallpox) or the Indian business class (wheeler-dealers all). The film’s biggest villain is a rich businessman’s wife. But, unlike in mainstream Hindi movies, the immorality of its elite clients does not taint the hotel staff. They are one big family, with class and community differences smoothed over by feudal benevolence and individual friendships. Also remarkable is the number of middle-class working women in the film — a ‘society’ journalist, a ‘hostess’ for a Marwari businessman, an air hostess. But either they’re bad girls, or if they’re good, they’re marked out for tragedy — one is tempted to read something into that. Despite some heavy-handed morality, Chowringhee is the rare Indian film that lets a hotel be something more than a den of vice. It may represent a civilisation in decline, but Shahjahan Hotel still manages to evoke nostalgia.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.