Occasionally there is a wish in our household for a trip to a rom-com or a ‘feelgood’ film. British films are often much safer bets than Hollywood. With some trepidation we sat and watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If I’m honest it was because I’d seen the trailer and any British film about India is grist to my mill. In the event it wasn’t that painful and a cast that includes Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie et al is always going to be watchable. However, the film still has various problems which are worth exploring and its reception raises a few more.
The title is a reference to the ‘Indian English’ forced upon poor Dev Patel who plays the youngest son of a New Delhi family who has opted to try to save a dilapidated hotel in Jaipur (but much of the film is actually Udaipur) that is part of the family holdings. He has no real skills and can only offer his engaging personality, but he successfully advertises the hotel online as a potential ‘rest home’ for UK pensioners. Six UK retirees (plus a seventh who opts for a hip replacement ‘outsourced’ from the NHS) turn up as the first guests. They all have to deal with the ‘shock’ of India, some graciously others not so well. The script offers few surprises and several reviewers have remarked on its similarity to Carry On Abroad.
Is it funny? On occasions, yes. Is it sad, moving? Ditto. But that’s the main problem with it. The parts are more than the whole. The overall story doesn’t make sense and the switches of tone need much more sensitive direction. I confess that I’ve avoided most of John Madden’s films, though I suspect I’ve seen some of his TV outings. (I’ve only seen Shakespeare in Love, which I didn’t like at all.) Is the film offensive in its representation of India and Indians? Not really – from my perspective. Most of the jokes are targeted at the Brit retirees. Apart from Dev Patel’s character Sonny, the relatively few Indian characters are played by local actors, including Lillete Dubey, a well-known star of Hindi cinema (best known in the UK for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding) as Sonny’s mother. I have seen the film criticised on that score, but I think it is just a sloppy script. With seven major Brit characters and a complicated melodrama/farce narrative concerning Sonny, his beautiful girlfriend who works in a call centre (new Bollywood prospect Tena Desae) and his disapproving mother, there are just too many threads to tie together. This means that the Maggie Smith character has to transform from xenophobic grouch to wise woman who can organise everything in the hotel in just a few weeks and that Judi Dench, who begins as a ‘helpless widow’ with no technical skills, can become a daily blogger in a hotel with no telephone, never mind no WiFi connection. But this is a broad comedy you say – well, yes, good point, but the story involving Tom Wilkinson is quite different – which brings me to the look of the film.
The original novel by Deborah Moggach was titled These Foolish Things and was set in Bangalore. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read other things she’s written and watched TV adaptations from her. She’s a ‘Hampstead novelist’ who has also lived in Pakistan and presumably travelled in India. I can imagine that she got the tone right and the idea of outsourcing certain medical procedures to India is quite realistic, I think (it has been done?). But if so, a ‘metro’ and especially Bangalore (Bengalaru) sounds a better bet than Jaipur. Producer Graham Broadbent admitted that they moved the story to Rajasthan because it looks so pretty – and as photographed by Ben Davis it certainly does. So here we are in what the British audience will see as ‘tourist India’. Director of photography Ben Davis has several major British film credits to his name but nothing that suggests he is familiar with Indian parallel cinema. Yet some of the shots and compositions wouldn’t look out of place in a Shyam Benegal or Satyajit Ray film. Rajasthan is just too photogenic. But having offered us something so beautiful and so provocative the script soon returns us to the banal.
As for its reception by UK audiences, we saw it in a virtually empty 300 seat cinema on a Sunday night, but around the country it has obviously drawn audiences making it No 2 to current box office champ The Woman in Black. The obvious point is that this is the 2012 follow-up to The King’s Speech as a film for the over-50s or for a younger audience who think that these actors are ‘national treasures’. In itself this is no bad thing, but as with The King’s Speech, you just wish it was a better film On the other hand there are smart audiences who will claim that the film demeans India and that this is ‘tourist porn’ just as Slumdog Millionaire was ‘poverty porn’. It’s not, it wasn’t. It’s broad comedy based on stereotypes that carry a grain of truth. Looking on the bright side, it’s only one more week until Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna opens in the UK, also shot in Rajasthan and starring Dev Patel’s Slumdog co-star Frieda Pinto. I think Dev Patel is under-rated and I expect Pinto to triumph. I have complete faith in Winterbottom.