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Mar 06 2013

Film review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

While not deep or demanding, this comedy touches on some serious issues and makes for enjoyable watching. It tells the story of seven aging English people each of whom is in the twilight of their lives and trying to come to terms with that brute fact. One has unresolved issues from his boyhood in India that he wants to settle before he dies, two are lonely and seek companionship, another feels useless and discarded after a lifetime spent working hard, a couple in a long loveless marriage sense that tensions are reaching breaking point, and a recent widow whose husband had made all the decisions in their lives now suddenly finds herself left to fend for herself in a modern technological world for which she is totally unprepared.

All of them for various reasons end up in Jaipur in India, lured to stay at the hotel that gives the film its title and that advertises itself as a luxury resort for ‘elderly and beautiful people’. In reality it is a somewhat run-down establishment whose very young manager Sonny has a vision of making what was once run by his late father into a haven for westerners who want to stretch their retirement money in their old age. Unfortunately his grandiose plans face obstacles in the form of lack of money and opposition from his mother who wants him to abandon both the hotel and his girlfriend who works in a call center, and instead get a steady job and marry a woman she has picked for him. Sonny’s hyperkinetic personality, unrealistic optimism, and scatterbrained way of operating do not help his cause either.

I tend to be wary of films (and books) that deal with the familiar trope of westerners going to the east. In my experience, many of them tend to focus more on the shock of well-to-do people used to the comforts of the west confronting the crowds and poverty and backwardness of the east, and often portray the locals as caricatures, as exotic others. Such films do not show that much of the developing world is a mixture of poverty and wealth, backwardness and highly advanced, traditional social customs and modern lifestyles. In fact, they are much like the US and other developed countries in the west. But while poverty has distinctive local characteristics, modernity looks pretty much the same everywhere which is why well-to-do people have more in common with similar classes in other countries than with the poorer elements within their own.

So given my misgivings, I had not planned on seeing this film except for the fact that friends strongly recommended it to me and I found that this film does a much better job of showing the complexity.

The one character who verges on being a parody is Sonny, the eager-to-please, aphorism-spouting Indian manager who says what he thinks you want to hear at any given moment, even if it is flagrantly false. What saves his character from devolving into caricature is that he is also very young, and young men the world over are prone to his kind of irrational exuberance that can border on the manic, and so his behavior can be partly seen as due to the excess of youth as opposed to an Indian cultural trait. Actor Dev Patel manages to save the character from being a stereotype and make him appealing.

While the film touches on serious issues, the tone is light. The resolution of each character’s story is somewhat pat (especially the ones involving Sonny and his mother, and that of a deeply racist English invalid who comes to better know the servant who waits on her and who belongs to the so-called untouchable caste) but the film is a comedy and clearly seeks to leave the audience in a good mood at the end and I for one enjoyed it and can forgive a somewhat forced happy ending.

The real strength of the film is in its cast. In addition to Patel, the film is carried by veterans Judi Densch, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and the less famous but always excellent Bill Nighy, who all turn in wonderful performances.

Here’s the trailer.

1 comment

  1. 1
    flex

    I’ve been wondering if you were going to review this one sometime.

    I didn’t catch it at the theaters, even though it was highly recommended by, of all people, my parents. They are facing some of the same issues as the English immigrants in the movie, and the found the movie, as Nero Wolfe would say, satisfactory. As you say, it shows both the wealthy and poor of India without judgement. I cannot say if the movie is accurate, but aside from Sonny (who I took as a young man following a dream rather than a cultural stereotype) I can’t think of a single character whom you didn’t have some sense of their motivations for their actions.

    It’s been 25 years since I visited India. Luckily, much of my time was spent in Shimla which was beautiful. I can’t say that I went native, not by any means, but I really enjoyed my walks around the city, seeing everything I could. While I was in New Delhi I mixed with the expatriate community, and there was a certain sadness and a feeling of isolation I picked up from them. I spent several evenings in the British Embassy throwing darts with people who really wanted to be back in Blighty.

    Maybe they had been there long enough to be jaded. I was only there for eight weeks, so I never lost the wonder of exploring a new culture. Of course, I spent 18 months exploring Turkey without getting bored, and I’m still exploring my own American culture without satiation.

    I’d love to go back to India one of these days.

    Oh, and I agree with you that Bill Nighy is excellent. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors. While his characters are a lot the same, his delivery and timing is so dead-pan that he can say the most unbelievable things with what appears to be absolute conviction.

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