If you think “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of those travelogues you have seen before, you are partially right about that. I am sure you have heard about their genre formula; A bunch of Western visitors come to an exotic place unfamiliar to most of them, and that exotic place in question, usually pretty to look on the screen, gives them the time and chance to reflect on the mundane lives they respectively have been leading, so their lives are changed with a bunch of life lessons they have learned at the ending.
But I am not grumbling about this cliché at all. My description of this genre formula sounds very trite to you, but it works whenever movie has right ingredients to be mixed properly, and, with many goodies to be savored, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of such charming cases. We have terrific British performers who fill their respective characters with warmth and humor, and the movie reminds me again that India is a very interesting and beautiful country never ceasing to amaze or confound outsiders like me because of its dizzy complexity palpable in its people, culture, and society. You think there is no surprise, and then India always surprises you.
The movie has a surprise for me like that. I am familiar with several curious cases of outsourcing in India through the notable films like “Slumdog Millionaire”(2008), but “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” amuses me with another interesting case of outsourcing. Besides being a major outsourcing market for many call centers as usual, now India starts to become another kind of outsourcing market in the film – providing the places and services for the retirees who come from the West. For instance, in case of Muriel Donnelly(Maggie Smith), your average old snorty British lady entering her retirement age, she is informed that it is a lot cheaper and faster to get her surgery in India rather waiting for surgery in England. She does not like foreigners, but cheap cost is something she cannot refuse.
Muriel is one of seven British retirees who will lodge at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan. We are briefly introduced to them one by one at the beginning. Evelyn Greenslade(Judy Dench) has recently lost her husband; she also has to give up her flat because of his debt, and now she tries to make a new start in a new place while being active at her blog site(the movie is frequently accompanied with the narrations through her blogging). Douglas Ainslie(Bill Nighy) and his wife Jean(Penelope Wilton) are an unhappy middle-aged couple; they become unhappier then before because they invested their retirement fund to their daughter’s failed online business. While Madge Hardcastle(Celia Imrie) comes to India to search for another Mr. Right in her life, Norman Cousins(Ronald Pickup) is also looking for a new chance like her, though this bachelor has been miserably failing to find his love so far. In case of Graham Dashwood(Tom Wilkinson), a recently retired judge, he visits this country for the first since he left the country a long time ago; he wants to find his lover in the past, who gave him the happiest moment in his lonely life during their regrettably short time.
Right from when they arrive in India, they experience how different India is from their world. They are stuck at the airport on the way to Jaipur, so they decide to take a bus(they learn their first lesson in India: “There is always room.”). When they finally arrive at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, well, the hotel is not exactly something they imagined while reading its brochure. It is more like a shabby inn rather than, say, a three-star hotel for the retirees(and the beautiful), and one room does not have even a front door. To think what I came across in one youth hostel in Manhattan in 2004 was bad…
The hotel is managed by a young man named Sonny Kapoor, played by Dev Patel(remember his breakthrough performance in “Slumdog Millionaire”?) with sincere hyperkinetic enthusiasm. Sonny has the hope and ambition to make his hotel, which was inherited from his dead father, into a nice place for his customers, but he is in a difficult situation. While it is hard to draw investors with his humble place, his older brothers will soon sell the place if there is not any way to save the hotel. His mother wants him to marry someone suitable for him, but he is in the relationship with a lovely girl named Sunaia(Tena Desae), of whom his mother disapproves despite his feelings toward her.
While most of the characters follow predictable paths, but there are delights and surprises here and there. While there are humorous moments while Madge and Norman try to find someone to date with(at one point, she tries to register in a local social club as Prince Margaret for saving money – only to be met with a brusque reply from a no-nonsense employee who is not fooled easily), we gradually realize the touching poignancy behind Graham’s impromptu decision to suddenly visit the country he left years ago. Douglas feels happier to be in India while his wife does not like going outside the hotel at all(she especially detests spiced Indian dishes). Evelyn is happy to start her second life through a job in a call center, which is incidentally where Sunaina works. Even Muriel, always distrustful of foreigners, begins to open her lonely heart through an unlikely relationship between a hotel maid, a lowest caste girl who is grateful to Muriel because of the attention Muriel gives to her.
The talented British actors are gathered for this film, and it is joyful to watch them work together. The characters may be a little too thin or typical, but they bring a lot of humanity to their characters, so the movie lightly moves around clichés while drawing laughs and poignancy from them. All performers do a good job as a well-rounded ensemble, but I must say Wilkinson is especially moving as a man freer than before through his search for his lover, which is eventually resolved in an unexpectedly insightful and heartfelt way.
I forgot to tell you about how India looks good as an important part of this film. Jaipur and its surrounding area in Rajasthan look as good as they can be in travelogue film, and the busy streets filled with rickshaws, tuk tuks, and other vehicles or the alleys lined with little shops are still colorful sights to see even though I have encountered such sights indirectly through movies and documentaries many times before.
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things”, the director John Madden made a pleasant feel-good travelogue movie with lots of charm to draw you inside its colorful world which overwhelms at first and then charms its visitors. Ol Parker’s competent adaptation is sappy at times, but the good performances compensate for that a lot, and the movie feels like a good short journey on the whole. It may not be something new, but it is something colorful enough to be cherished.