Too few contemporary movies are interested in imparting the maxims of life on an audience; fewer still, willing to embrace topical narratives devoted to the challenges inevitably faced with the passage of time. For one reason or another, Hollywood has always had great difficulty accepting the fact not everyone is twenty-one and built like the proverbial brick latrine. At least in its heyday, Tinsel Town did acknowledge the elderly were among us in the grandfatherly/motherly types frequently populating the backdrops of their filmed fairytales; to be mindful of their presence and respectful towards their sage wisdom, only possible when the bloom of youth had decidedly worn off. By contrast, today’s cinema has chosen to all but ignore the natural aging process as a deliberate and factual part of life. Grandparents in contemporary movies are virtually nonexistent, while parental expertise is frequently made the brunt of quaintly idiotic jokes or discarded altogether. If parents appear at all in American movies these days, then they are getting decidedly younger every year, presumably still ‘with it’ and young enough to pursue their own sexual appetites and other desires, despite having tipped the scales at the age of, say, thirty-five!
How refreshing then to rediscover director, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011); an uncharacteristically bright and breezy, life-affirming and soul-searching little gemstone of a movie, imbued with a withstanding veneration for the more threadbare among us. Ol Parker’s screenplay, borrowing its inspiration from Deborah Moggach’s novel, ‘These Foolish Things’, brings together seven strangers from disparate backgrounds who share but two common traits; they all hail from Britain and second, each has entered their emeritus years, rather unexpectedly it seems, to face the endurance of a world having strangely – and quite suddenly, moved on without them. Funny, how some people choose to live their lives as horses; sprinting from moment to moment, bucking at every turn, whinnying the quiet moments away and ultimately trading in their golden years for glue. Yet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fosters an admiration for such nags, especially after the blinders have come off and the journey toward genuine self-discovery begins; the race given up for a good sack of wild oats.
If, as weary traveler, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) astutely suggests in her daily blog posts, that nothing on earth can prepare these new arrivals for the abject chaos of modern Jaipur, India; a cluttered, colorful and chaotic, abstractly decaying, yet burgeoning cesspool of optimism, then the intensity of the climate and city smells – some more welcomed than others – also, the overcrowding – are a trial by fire designed to sacrifice old habits, soon to be replaced by a newfound spirit of adventurism. In absence of genuine logic, blind optimism will usually suffice, although not all the travelers attending The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will learn this fundamental life lesson. By plane, bus and tuk-tuks, across rigorous terrain and winding highways, narrowly averting a collision with an oncoming truck, our miscellaneous brood of outcasts soon discovers they are in for a most remarkable renaissance and a profound spiritual awakening. The aforementioned Evelyn is perhaps the most sanguine of this bunch; having recently discovered, after the loss of her beloved husband, Hugh, that mounting debts have forced her to reconsider this life alone, now seemingly at the mercy of a frustrated son (Jay Villiers) and financial advisor (Paul Bentall) who would rather see her ‘taken care of’ than satisfied in her beliefs she can make a fresh start on her own.
In another part of town, we are introduced to Judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) who, upon attending a fellow colleague’s retirement party under duress, makes the impromptu announcement he too is leaving the girth of his nearly forty years on the bench to posterity. Graham’s zest for India is not plagued by necessity. Or is it? Although financially independent, Graham harbors a more profound secret, drawing him closer to an imperfect past. Then, there are the Ainslies, Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton). She is an impossible prig, nattering and overly chatty in an outwardly superficial and pleasant way to strangers, masking her teeming contempt for Douglas’ misguided loyalty to their daughter; he, having invested their entire thirty years life’s savings in a failed internet company. We are introduced to Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), flat on her back inside an overcrowded English hospital; ailing with a bad hip and even worse attitude with racist overtones. After refusing to be attended by a black physician, Muriel is informed by East Indian practitioner, Dr. Ghujarapartidar (Paul Bhattacharjee) of an inter-hospital exchange program; her surgery completed in record time without the usual six-month delay. The last of our troop is comprised of Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup), destined to form the unlikeliest bond of friendship predicated on a bias: each, seeking new love for their old and withering bodies – or at the very least, a sense of companionship and reason to belong. She is a grandmother by circumstance who has had quite enough of doing the ‘grandmotherly’ things for an ungrateful daughter (Sara Stewart) and son-in-law (Simon Wilson). Norman is a randy old sod, first glimpsed attending a speed dating mixer in which all the other single hopefuls are between the ages of 25 and 35.
Societal normalcy is judged by how well one conforms to standards established beyond everyone’s control. But in Jaipur, these circumstances are compounded by a jolt of culture clash. Some will look upon the city as an escape, a folly or even a catastrophe. But virtually all will be blessed by a most wonderful and unexpected adventure that realigns their expectations with a most profoundly personal outlook on each of their lives. Asked by Evelyn at the start of their sojourn whether or not the trip will be safe, Graham replies, “No, it’s going to be extraordinary.” And so it is; beginning with an absolute immersion of the senses. The group’s introduction to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is anything but promising and initially overwhelming. The hotel is managed by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel); an optimistic boy, desperately in love with Sunaina (Tena Desae), a call center operator. Sunaina’s brother, business-minded young Turk, Jay (Sid Makkar) does not approve of their love match, and neither does Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey), an affluent matriarch living in Dubai, disappointed by Sonny’s determination to cling to his late father’s dream of resurrecting the hotel to its former glory. And quite a resurrection it shall be, considering the present state of decay; grotesquely limited in its amenities, with leaky faucets, crumbling facades and bird-invested rooms, some of them even missing doors.
In the days that pass, life progresses at a heady pace. Prompted by a fairly confrontational phone call she had with a call center employee while still living in England, over her late husband’s computer account, Evelyn applies for a job at the call center managed by Jay. He momentarily attempts to dissuade Evelyn from pursuing the position. It is a young person’s place, most of the screeners recently graduated from the university. However, Jay is most impressed with Evelyn’s ability to navigate the culture-clash and disconnect between his employees and their aged clientele, who generally reside outside of India. He therefore appoints Evelyn as his company’s new cultural liaison; her first order of business, to re-educate the screeners in a more unscripted approach to their phone etiquette and diplomacy. In the meantime, Graham hires a livery to take him to the old neighborhood where he once grew up in relative affluence. He is mildly shocked to discover virtually all the residential properties long since torn down and the neighborhood reduced to slums where young boys indulge themselves in a game of cricket. Coaching one of the boys in how best to hold the cricket bat, Graham gains their collective respect. Alas, his heart is heavy in more ways than one.
Although no one knows it yet, Graham is suffering from acute heart failure. As all the guests gather in the evening to regal one another with their adventures, Evelyn confides to Graham she has a job. Douglas tells Graham he took his advice to explore a most extraordinary temple of meditation. At dinner, Norman nods off and collapses onto the floor, his fall mistaken for sudden death by Sonny until Norman stirs back to life with a rather wily grin, thus, delighting everyone with a badly-needed, hearty good laugh. By now, the guests have realized their dreams of a cultured East Indian retreat have been predicated on Sonny’s false promises to provide them with luxury accommodations. The boy has not been devious, so much as he has desperately hoped to bring new life to his father’s old dream; explaining to Jean, “In India we have a very old saying. ‘Everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright…then it must not be the end.” Slowly, the hotel’s guests begin to settle in, abandoning old habits as the days wear on into weeks. For some more than others, this is easily accomplished. Muriel has her surgery, overseen by a kindly physiotherapist (Bhuvnesh Shetty) who appoints, a high cast Hindu, Anokhi (Seema Azmi) as her temporary servant.
Believing he has found a true friend in Evelyn, Graham regales her with a great failing in his personal history. Nearly forty years before, he fell in love with a young East Indian man, Manoj (Rajendra Gupta), the son of his father’s servant. The two were discovered together by their respective families; Graham’s father exiling Manoj and his entire family and sending his son back to England to pursue a law degree. For these past forty years, Graham has wondered what became of the man he so desperately loved – the only relationship that ever meant anything to him. Evelyn encourages Graham to pursue the matter by contacting a nearby consulate to learn if Manoj is still alive. Time is of the essence, as Graham realizes his heart ailment is fast getting the better of him. Meanwhile, Madge attends the Viceroy Club, encouraged by its secretary (Denzil Smith) to join – for a fee. Madge endeavors to pass herself off as Princess Margaret, presumably to finagle a cheaper administration fee. However, the secretary is no fool, pointing out that for a woman who has been dead for nearly nine years, Madge is remarkably well preserved.
Madge is hoping to find a rich husband at this haughty and exclusive club. But after a personal inquiry she is escorted by the club’s barman (Sandeep Lele) and introduced to a man believed to be ‘His Royal Highness’ – none other than Norman, pursuing the same failed ruse to meet and seduce eligible women. Norman suggests Madge is cramping his style, although she informs him he has absolutely none to cramp. However, Madge is sympathetic to Norman’s needs, perhaps because they so closely mirror her own. So, she approaches an attractive woman seated at the bar, Carol (Diana Hardcastle). Carol and Madge hit it off. Not so much Carol and Norman, as he desperately bungles his introduction to her with a series of jaunty and egotistical comments about her toned figure. Realizing he has completely botched his first impression, Norman recants and confesses, “Can’t we drop this pretense and start over? My name’s Norman and I’m lonely” to which Carol kindly replies, “My name’s Carol…so am I.”
In the meantime, things have gone from bad to worse for Sonny and Sunaina after she sneaks into his bedroom in the middle of the night for a surprise seduction. Alas, Sonny has given his room to Madge who is more confused than startled by the sudden appearance of a very attractive young girl in her bed. Sonny’s mother is awakened by the commotion and outraged, suspecting Sunaina to be a prostitute. Mrs. Kapoor orders Sunaina out of this ‘respectable’ hotel. In Sunaina’s defense, Sonny points out to his mother she came to the room not to have sex with Madge, but rather with him. It now becomes clear to Mrs. Kapoor she must encourage her other two sons – both prosperous and living abroad – to sell off their shares in the hotel, thereby forcing Sonny to come home with her to Dubai. “Your life will be better there,” Mrs. Kapoor insists. “No,” Sonny objects, “It will be smaller!” For some time thereafter, relations between Sonny and Sunaina are strained. Sonny pursues a private investor, Mr. Maruthi (Vishnu Sharma) in the hopes of gaining an influx of badly needed capital to continue with phase two of his hotel renovations.
For a long while, Jean has felt trapped by her circumstances, unable to find anything remotely pleasant about either the hotel or the prospect of remaining ‘happily’ retired in Jaipur. She tries in vain to befriend Graham; then, makes an awkward romantic play for him, to which he quietly confesses his homosexuality. Not long thereafter, Graham informs Evelyn and Douglas the consulate has managed to locate Manoj. Long ago, he married a kind woman, Gaurika (Neena Kulkarni), remaining truthful to her by disclosing his affair with Graham, the one man who has continued to occupy his heart these many years since their separation. The two friends are tearfully reunited as Evelyn and Douglas look on. In the meantime, Norman goes to a local physician, hoping to impress Carol with his sexual prowess by securing a prescription for Viagra. Instead, she exchanges his pills for two aspirin; both, pleasantly surprised when his stamina holds out all night long. The next morning, Norman and Graham discuss their mutual fulfillments after so many long years of emptiness in their respective lives. Norman departs to take a shower and Evelyn discovers Graham still seated in the courtyard some hours later. She has had a very promising day at work, but her joyful news is deflated when she suddenly realizes Graham has suffered a fatal heart attack. As per Graham’s last request, Manoj arranges for a traditional Hindu burial in Udaipur; Graham’s remains burned on a pyre as his friends look on, his ashes later committed to Lake Pichola by Manoj.
Heartbroken over the loss of her friend, a tearful Evelyn is momentarily comforted by Douglas; an act of compassion that incurs Jean’s wrath. In turn, Douglas leaves Evelyn to confront his wife, at long last standing up to her chastisements of him, in essence confessing he has remained ever-devoted to her, although merely out of a sense of loyalty to their marriage – not love, despite her awful attitude. Douglas now calls her out as the truly ‘terrible person’. Not long thereafter, the Ainslies join the other mourners as a united front with Jean making the impromptu announcement ‘they’ have decided to return to England at once. Douglas is clearly not happy about this decision, but nevertheless remains compliant with his wife’s edict. Back at the hotel, Muriel looks over the books and realizes Sonny’s plan to transform the hotel into a retreat for ‘the beautiful and elderly’ has genuine merit. She sets into motion a series of contacts that will help Sonny achieve his goals, appointing herself executive manager to secure the necessary loans. Alas, as Douglas and Jean prepare to depart, he makes a last ditch effort to say goodbye to Evelyn. With Muriel’s complicity, Evelyn hides from view, certain she will be unable to resist sending him off without a show of tears. As fate would have it, Jean and Douglas’ tuk-tuk is caught in heavy traffic. Determined not to miss their flight, Jean employs a rickshaw for one, confessing to Douglas she suddenly realizes their marriage is over. If he follows her now, he will only be doing it out of that same flawed sense of loyalty.
Douglas nevertheless pursues Jean to the airport, but misses their flight. After travelling mostly on foot all through the night, Douglas returns to Jaipur, startling Evelyn with his presence. He informs her of his desire to remain behind and pursue a relationship with her. Inside, she rejoices in the prospect of starting a new romance. Under advice from Muriel, Sonny storms the call center, ordering Jay to step aside as he pledges his unwavering devotion to Sunaina, whom he has not seen since their disastrous botched rendezvous at the hotel. A short while later, Sunaina is properly presented to Mrs. Kapoor, whom she still denies as a suitable mate for her son until an elderly worker at the hotel reminds Mrs. Kapoor of the life she once shared with Sonny’s late father; a man she dearly loved. Realizing nothing she could say will change her son’s mind or heart, Mrs. Kapoor gives her blessing to their marriage.
In Evelyn’s penultimate blog post, she quietly explains the moral of the story (something virtually all movies from Hollywood’s golden age used to have, but precious few from our contemporary compost of film fodder sincerely attempt, much less embrace): that “the person who risks nothing, does nothing – has nothing. All we know about the future is that it will be different. But perhaps what we fear is that it will be the same. So we must celebrate the changes…because as someone once said, ‘Everything will be alright in the end…and if it isn’t alright, then trust me – it’s not yet the end.”’ The movie concludes with Douglas and Evelyn enjoying a spirited ride through Jaipur on motorcycle, their twilight romance eloquently contrasted with the excitement and joy of Sonny and Sunaina’s engagement; this couple, also seen speeding through the cluttered byways on Sonny’s moped.
In an age of progressively disengaged and less than engaging cinema pop art, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a celebratory movie-going experience. Director, John Madden, whose work I have greatly admired for some time, delivers a vivacious exaltation of life on the cusp of renewal, even as the darkening clouds have already gathered on these prospective horizons. The sheer joy of the piece extends far beyond the luxury of seeing some truly fine thespians giving us their all in a story expertly scripted. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is therefore a refreshing change of pace from the usual fluff that adorns our movie marquees these days. Clearly, Madden cherishes the nuggets of wisdom imbedded in Ol Parker’s beautifully designed scenarios. In only 124 min. Madden and Parker manage to invest us in the mundane lives of seven extraordinary individuals from the Geritol sect, each unwilling to fade quietly into obscurity. At least by conventional cinema standards, these characters are deemed relatively ‘unattractive’ simply because they have transgressed beyond the invisibly designed boundaries of what constitutes a person’s ‘prime’, or our collective expectations for the stars to remain perennially young and beautiful.
Yet, here is a story, that despite its marginal focus on Sonny and Sunaina’s romance, is more emphatically enmeshed with reconnoitering the sublime nature of mature men and women, unafraid to admit they lack the answers to life’s grand mystery, but equally as fearless to pursue it on their own terms. Arguably, a story like this could only be told from the vantage of a thought-numbing culture clash; the ideal proving ground to unearth their journeys and direct them toward a more insightful inkling of self-discovery and enlightenment. In the final analysis, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a very rare lotus blossom indeed, full of mysticism, romance and the spirit of adventurism – though fascinatingly, absence of pervading nostalgia; for it suggests, illustrates, and then, assuredly confirms there is nothing to fear of the future, least of all in our inevitable decline in physical prowess. We are impermanent creatures, only meant to leave our marks upon a seemingly more permanent world; life intermingled through time and fostered with a grander understanding of profoundness for the journey taken, the roads traveled, and the byways as yet to be fully explored.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is, in a word, gorgeous; the 1080p hi-def image bursting with a robust palette of lush and invigorating colors; rich turquoises, lurid pinks and vibrant purples, married to burnt sienna and intensely lush greens. It’s an exquisite representation of the original 35mm film source with spot on contrast and a naturally thick grain structure playing host to a startling amount of refined details, particularly in faces, hair and clothing textures. You are going to love this disc. The lossless DTS 5.1 audio is a potpourri of indigenous SFX, expertly placed dialogue and Thomas Newman’s evocative score. Extras are the only genuine disappointment; a series of hastily assembled junkets totaling a scant 14 minutes and designed to promote the movie to the press, featuring nothing beyond snippets and sound bites from some cast and crew, with only a superficial gloss over the elements gone into the movie’s design, incubation and execution. These do not pass for a comprehensive ‘making of’ but are just superfluous and deadly dull. At the very least, Fox could have given us an isolated score track or perhaps an audio commentary. But no – none of that. So, pass on the extras. Bottom line: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a must see voyage into exoticism. Emphatically, yes!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)