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High on a hill in Mussoorie

Prachi Raturi Misra | Updated on December 05, 2019 Published on December 05, 2019

The muse and the makers: Kshitij Sharma (middle) with Ganesh Saili (right) during the making of Savoy   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A documentary on The Savoy is reaping awards at international festivals

Kshitij Sharma remembers vividly his first time at The Savoy. Way back in the 1990s, Sharma and a few others from his school had stayed at the grand hotel in Mussoorie. The boys, in their high-waist trousers and oversized sweaters, had posed for many pictures in front of its majestic lawns.

Sharma recalls the finer details of the stay — the hotel’s wooden flooring that muffled the restless footsteps of the boys; and in its lawns, a 300-year-old Deodar tree considered to be older than the hill station itself. “I was floored even though the hotel was falling apart at that time. The more I ventured into its corners, the more I was fascinated by it,” he recalls.

Twenty years later, Sharma’s fascination has culminated in Savoy, Saga of an Icon, an award-winning documentary on the 117-year-old heritage property. Apart from the Platinum Award at the Latitude Film festival, London, it won prizes for the best documentary and director at the Mindfield Film Festival in the US, and accolades for its editing at the Florence Film Awards.

Winning spree: The documentary has won accolades at international festivals   -  SPECIAL ARRANGMENT

 

Savoy, Saga of an Icon is Sharma’s first documentary and it came on the heels of five acclaimed feature films — Kaalchakra, Bojh (both 2016), Let’s Talk about ‘It’ (2017), Aadamkhor (2018) and Devil (2019).

The documentary explores Sharma’s special connect with the hill station, an hour’s drive from Dehradun in Uttarakhand, and particularly The Savoy. “My mother is from Dehradun, so we often made trips to Mussoorie,” Sharma tells BLink. “I loved going into the odd lanes, the roads that were not busy and the corners that seemed undiscovered.”

As a child he was always looking for the unexplored, and Mussoorie promised adventure. “I guess my trip to The Savoy when I was in high school was about that. A sense of mystery crept in and stayed there. The film is really about that young boy finding what made the place so special,” Sharma says.

Eight years ago, during one of his many trips to the hills, Sharma chanced upon author Ganesh Saili’s book Mussoorie Medley, which had a chapter dedicated to The Savoy. That was all Sharma needed to rekindle his interest. He met the Mussoorie-based Saili over coffee and, years later, when the idea for the documentary came about he knew whom to reach out to.

The 62-minute film has Saili talking about the interesting facets of the hotel. As he tells BLink, “I did it for the sheer joy and love for Mussoorie’s history, seen here through the archway of The Savoy. Emperors and clowns, kings and wanderers, film stars and politicians, prime ministers and presidents have all walked down its foyer.”

On the making of the film, Saili adds, “The cameras rolled from 7am to 7pm over four days. We used no filters or retakes and the Mussoorie mist, which came unannounced, added to the romance of history.”

And history there is plenty at The Savoy. In 1901 Cecil D Lincoln, a barrister from Lucknow, bought the land on which stood the Mussoorie School, pulled it down and built a grand hotel, The Savoy, which was inaugurated in 1902. American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas wrote about a visit to the hotel in 1926 in the book Land of the Black Pagoda: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.”

Among the hotel’s royal patrons, who arrived with a retinue, were the Wodeyars — the erstwhile rulers of Mysore — who occupied an entire wing. The Gaekwads of Baroda, too, took an entire block whenever they visited. During World War II, British and American military officers on leave sought amusement in the hills and partied at the hotel till daybreak. There was dancing in the ballroom and cabaret artistes enthralled guests. “Not to forget the song and dance, snooker and chess,” adds Saili.

After WWII ended, Rai Bahadur Kripa Ram Jauhar bought the hotel from Lincoln in 1946. In the late 1980s, faced with financial difficulties, the hotel was shut down. The property was sold in 2005 to industrialists Kishore Kaya and RP Singh, who have since restored it; it is now the WelcomeHotel The Savoy.

Sharma’s documentary, produced by Kaya, captures the colourful past and the happy present of the hotel. The filming, completed in just four days, is built on Saili’s research spanning 40 years. Sharma has also sourced material from various other places, including The London Library. The film has rare footage of Jawaharlal Nehru riding a horse in Mussoorie, the Dalai Lama at the hotel as a young man, as well as sepia-tinted images of Indian royals.

“The narrative is that of a schoolboy telling a story as it is. It’s a story told with love; and yes, I love the awards,” Sharma says.

Prachi Raturi Misra is a Delhi-based journalist and author

Published on December 05, 2019
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