New York: Director John Madden who gave us Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love again excels with his hugely entertaining new comedy-drama, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The film centres on a motley group of seven elderly British pensioners who decide to “outsource” their retirement to what they think is a newly restored palace-hotel in Rajasthan.
Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel run by Sonny Kapoor played exuberantly by Dev Patel, nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.
“We tend to put old people in a philosophical ghetto: think of how difficult they are. But in this film we have all these old people behaving like teenagers. The characters are made young again by the situations they find themselves in. They are challenged and overwhelmed by the experience of modern India,” said Madden before the New York premiere of his film.
“Humour is the great weapon in making people think of things differently. The script is funny and rich, and it’s not just a comedy,” notes Madden. “It also deals with bereavement, loneliness and isolation, and confronts the question of what is really possible as you get older. Can you start over again? Is it ever too late to change?”
The answer for those at the Marigold Hotel seems tenuous, but India gradually changes them and they discover that life and love can begin again. An elite ensemble cast that includes Dame Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson can be seen zipping through the crowded streets of Jaipur on rickshaws and scooters, looking for — and finding — romance.
The film was shot in India over nine and a half weeks. India was a “learning experience” for Dench, who agrees with her character Evelyn’s description of the country as “an assault on the senses.” This was the Shakespearean theatre actress’s first trip to India, but it didn’t take her long to adjust to her new surroundings.
“Within 24 hours, I was completely fascinated and bewitched by India. The beauty of the people, I thought, was astounding. The colour, the noise, the smell. Everything about it is completely staggering. I can’t wait to go back there,” said Dench.
Recently widowed Evelyn, played flawlessly by 77-year-old Dench, finds companionship in India, which Dench says she understands. Dench is also a widow, her husband, actor Michael Williams, died of cancer in 2001.
“When you’ve been widowed for quite a long time, it’s very, very nice to have the company of somebody, suddenly. It doesn’t have to be a great passionate sexual affair, but it’s very nice to have the company of somebody who actually says, ‘Oh, I’ll find your keys for you,’ or ‘Let’s go to the theatre tonight,’” said Dench.
Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel also has a personal connection to the story. “My mother has actually worked as a caretaker for the elderly and I was enticed by how vivid these characters are, by their sarcasm and their wisdom. I fell in love with the script because each character shines in his or her own way.”
Patel’s love interest in the film is Tena Desae, as Sunaina, an ebullient girl who works in her brother’s call center. Desae who makes her English language debut in “Marigold” said she was the tour guide for the Britsh crew. “Everyone was very warm and encouraging,” said Desae who held her own against the highly experienced British cast.
As for the hotel itself, the film makers ultimately chose Ravla Khempur, a royal palace turned equestrian hotel that is attached to the tiny village of Khempur, outside Udaipur. “The hotel is a character itself, and it was probably the most difficult to cast,” says Madden.
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The rest of the filming took place in the center of Jaipur, around the City Palace, the Marigold market, and Kanota Fort which stood in for the Viceroy Club where the film’s characters Madge and Norman hope to seduce Indian royalty. Not unexpectedly, the shooting attracted hundreds of onlookers.
“Before you can blink there are 200 people. We kept disappearing and coming back when the crowds had melted. It was guerrilla filming,” said Penelope Wilton, who plays Jean.
Wilton’s character Jean comes to India in a last-ditch effort to retire in luxury at a cut-rate price, only to find that nothing — not the Marigold Hotel, nor India, and certainly not her husband — lives up to her shallow expectations.
The film has other interesting characters that include Muriel, a salty, opinionated, retired housekeeper, played brilliantly by Maggie Smith who would have happily stayed in her own corner of the world were it not for a pesky hip that forces her to India for surgery. Muriel is instinctively xenophobic but provides the laughs in the film. She undergoes a happy transformation in India.
Marigold, with its feel-good vibe and self-deprecating British sense of humour has already reaped $66 million abroad, and was the No 1 film in Britain after opening there in February, ultimately outperforming Iron Lady and The Queen. The film, which was made for roughly $14 million, opens in Indian theaters on May 18.
The film is based on a 2004 novel called These Foolish Things by British author Deborah Moggach. “We loved the concept of outsourcing retirement, taking our outsourcing of everyday tasks like banking and customer service one step further. Deborah had pondered where she would like to end up in her golden years, and decided living above an Indian bazaar would be endlessly fascinating,” said producer Graham Broadbent.