I was completely bewitched by India: Judi Dench

New York: Most of the British actors in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had never been to India before their nine week shoot in Rajasthan. A few found it a “brain curdling” experience and didn’t like the country much. They were disoriented by an India full of contrasts, at once rich and dirt poor. But like her character in the movie, Oscar-winning actress dame Judi Dench found herself falling in love with India.

“Although I had family who had been out to India, I really didn't have a great desire to go and then this film came up. Within 24 hours of being in India, I was completely fascinated and bewitched by the country,” said Dench, a celebrated Shakespearean actress who is perhaps best known, these days, as spy chief M in a series of James Bond movies.

"I hope that what comes out of this film is how incredible India is and how beautiful the people are," added Dench before the New York premiere of her film.

At 77, Dench is in demand as much as ever and defies a debilitating eye condition, age-related macular degeneration, to continue working, even though she has lost part of her eyesight and struggles to read film scripts or see people sitting directly in front of her across the dinner table. Despite her eye problems, Dench said she had no plans to retire. Her seventh Bond film, Skyfall, is due to be released later this year.

"It's very good street cred with young chaps," Dench says of her Bond role. "And it's very nice indeed, because that's the way you get an audience for tomorrow. If I can get them to maybe come and see something else, maybe not necessarily Marigold, but something else, then that's our audience for the future."

 I was completely bewitched by India: Judi Dench

Judi Dench with Dev Patel who also stars in the film: Image courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

According to reports, Dench has an unusually close connection to that audience. Her daughter, the actress Finty Williams, went into rehab for alcoholism in 2004, and since then, Dench has been caring for her grandson, Sam. Dench reveals, "If you play M in James Bond, you get approached mostly by children of my grandson's age, 15 and up. His friends come to our house and imagine that it's a bit like MI6."

Despite her zest for life, Dench acknowledges she does see signs of old age creeping in: "I shout a lot at the radio. I know that's old. And my family says, 'Oh for goodness' sake, ma, shut up.'"

In John Madden’s Marigold Hotel, Dench plays newly widowed Evelyn, who has just inherited her husband’s hidden debts. The film centres on Dench and six other elderly British pensioners who decide to “outsource” their retirement to what they think is a grand palace-hotel in Rajasthan. In the rough-and-tumble of living in the dilapidated Marigold Hotel lost loves and new loves are found, relationships reshaped, and lives dramatically transformed.

The film stars two great dames of the British stage, Dench and Maggie Smith along with an ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Dev Patel. They can be seen zipping through the crowded streets of Jaipur on rickshaws and scooters, looking for — and finding — romance.

Dench’s character Evelyn, takes an instant shine to India, and gets a call-centre job training Indian operators in diplomacy and sensitivity when dealing with Brits. She finds better-late-than-never love in India with Bill Nighy who plays a hen-pecked husband and out-of-luck father who gives his daughter the money intended for his retirement.

Having lost her husband, actor Michael Williams, to lung cancer in 2001 Dench says she was able to draw on her experience of being widowed to play Evelyn. “Everything that happens to you is fed into a kind of computer, I suppose,” she says. “It sounds rather...what’s the right word? Cold, rather calculating. But nevertheless, every experience you have, you sometimes draw on if you’re an actor.”

“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.

Dench is box-office gold in Britain and America and films with her have been automatic hits: Iris, Ladies in Lavender, Mrs Henderson Presents, Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown. Marigold Hotel, with its feel-good vibe and self-deprecating British humour has already made $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 $14 million, opens in Indian theatres on 18 May.

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Most of the Britsh cast and director John Madden were bowled over by India, but Tom Wilkinson, 64, who plays a retired High Court judge struggling to revive his joie de vivre in The Marigold, was more circumspect.

“It was the most brain curdling experience. I didn't quite imagine the scale of the contrast, chaos, and pandemonium that is India," says Wilkinson. "It was a culture shock that I never really got over. You would see a woman bathing her child in a puddle and a few yards away riches beyond the dreams of avarice.”

“Then of course there were stories in the news every day about corruption. It’s a huge, variegated, complicated country with such a mixture of beauty and poverty that it is hard to take it all in. I hope India will be able to resolve the contradictions. The emerging middle class will necessarily change the society. So I am not going to give up hope,” said Wilkinson. “I think the film gives a realistic impression of all those contrasts.”

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Updated Date: May 18, 2012 09:09:11 IST