Boatman Jogiraj Chakraborthy (Adil Hussain) acts on his suicidal thoughts and capsizes his vessel mid-journey, killing every passenger on board. Months later, he signs up to be the caretaker of Himalayan resort Nirvana Inn, only to find that the guests who check in are the very people he presumed dead. Are Jogi's eyes playing tricks on him or are the violently unhinged guests a manifestation of his survivors' guilt? Maybe he's dead, trapped inside a variation of Sartre's 'hell is other people' philosophy. Or is the inn a kind of purgatory, a layover he will only be able to move on from once he atones for his sins? The film's 115-minute-long runtime depicts Jogi's descent into paranoia amid the increasingly unsettling atmosphere, but offers no easy answers.
"I made it ambiguous because I wanted people's interpretations rather than me saying: Okay this is this. For me, it's primarily about a man suffering from guilt and how it makes his life a nightmare," says director Vijay Jayapal, ahead of the film's premiere at the Busan International Film Festival on October 6. The film's title, however, teases one theory. "Nirvana Inn was a deliberate choice of title. It refers to the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation."
"Our resort had a very eerie kind of feel. I thought – what if Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep was set here? The idea then was to make The Shining meets Winter Sleep," says director Vijay Jayapal
The film was inspired by a newspaper article about the investigation into the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 crash, which revealed that a suicidal co-pilot deliberately flew it into the French Alps, killing everyone on board. Jayapal spent the next year-and-a-half brewing the idea over in his mind, eventually convinced of the story's potential while on a family trip to Kerala. "Our resort had a very eerie kind of feel. I thought – what if Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep was set here? The idea then was to make The Shining meets Winter Sleep," he says. A series of unfamiliar growls coming from the roof kept the director awake one night. The next morning, the resort's caretaker shrugged off his uneasiness, saying they were probably the sounds of a bear or monkey. Still, they were eerie enough that he decided to incorporate them into the film as a manifestation of Jogi's guilt. "You don't know whether the growling is real or just in his mind. It's meant to amplify his fear. He's new to the place, he's alone, he's from the river island of Majuli so this is the first time he's come to a mountainside resort. He has this baggage of the past."
The isolation that comes with an unfamiliar territory is also the subject of Jayapal's first feature film, Revelations, which traces the lives of three Tamilians in Kolkata. The film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016. "Loneliness is one of my favourite themes. For some weird reason, I consider myself a stranger in my own city, though I have been living in Chennai since I was born. And then when I think about all those people who have to move into a new place and lead a lonesome life, it horrifies me," he says. In Nirvana Inn, elements from Jogi's past as a Bhaona dancer from Assam begin to seep into his new life at the resort, where he's treated with hostility and suspicion by the locals.
Jayapal travelled to Uttarakhand, Uttaranchal and Lonavala in search of a remote location, eventually finding an inn he liked in Manali. He then decided to make the film a mix of Assamese and Hindi instead of Tamil, his mother tongue. "If I found a great location in Karnataka, then it would've become a Kannada film. The story determines the language because language is the tool used to communicate the story," he says. While writing the screenplay took Jayapal just six days, translating his English dialogues into Hindi with the help of his first assistant director took three months. The character of Jogi was originally envisioned as a Kathakali dancer from Thekkady, Kerala, which changed when Assamese actor Adil Hussain came on board.
Some of the film's most eerie scenes came from Jayapal's own life, such as one in which a family of four lures Jogi to their room on the pretext of asking him to fix their faulty tubelight. They switch on the fan when he's in position, the whirring blades narrowly missing his neck. Jayapal had pulled a similar prank on his father as a child. "The idea was to make something that wasn't exactly creepy, but weird. I wanted to mine horror from daily activities, to find abnormality in normal objects," he says.
Wanting to subvert the nighttime setting of traditional horror films, he shot most of Nirvana Inn during the day in the sub-zero temperatures of Manali's winter last year. At this point, funding ran out and Jayapal was unsure of how he would tackle the post-production process. He applied for, and received a grant from the Asian Cinema Fund, awarded to only four films every year – two Korean and two Asian. With it came access to studios in Seoul for three weeks. There, he completed the film's sound-mixing and colour grading. "This gives you a kind of confidence," he says, an attitude he hopes to carry into his next film.