The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a dangerous premise. Seven British retirees travel to a hotel in Jodhpur, India, that advertises itself as a post-retirement haven. In the process they re-discover themselves, find old flames, fall in and out of love and begin new journeys. A cinematic adaption by John Madden of Deborah Moggach’s novel ‘These Foolish Things’, it positions itself to be about finding one’s place in the world, wherever that may be.
It could’ve easily fallen into the cliché ridden pit where films like Eat, Pray, Love and Slumdog Millionaire go to die — that dark abyss of white people discovering their lost selves in oriental lands and brown people communicating only through spiritual metaphors in indecipherable accents.
The film’s true genius is its incredibly sensitive character arcs. Each character unravels delicately, displaying dimensions as the narrative progresses. Evelyn (Judi Dench) is not just a freshly widowed middle-aged white woman but someone who is both terrified and excited in equal measure at being her own person for the first time in her life. Dench’s performance gives an almost poetic depth to Evelyn’s conflict. She could be any woman who is marking milestones for herself by doing something as simple and as herculean as going for her first job interview at the age of 55. Tom Wilkinson’s Graham is battling with the ghosts of his past. Despite the fact that his character is a vantage point for the obligatory sexuality theme that most filmmakers have to weave in, his story remains both refreshing and poignant without ever being preachy about western gay identity. Bill Nighy also manages to give the character of Douglas an almost roguish school boy charm that is both endearing and frustrating.
Maggie Smith’s caustic Muriel is unapologetically racist and, refreshingly enough, does not have a change of heart at the end. She displays a ‘one-woman army’ determination to rally on without letting herself be traumatised by her own sob story.
The film weakens only when it zooms into the narratives of its Indian characters. Their stories seem both clichéd and hurried, losing out on the nuances that are otherwise present. Dev Patel’s painful accent, at least to my desi ears, does not help.
What does make up for this, however, is a good musical score. Also, interestingly enough the film’s cinematography captures an insider’s India and not a heightened hyper-real exotic land that is only visible in films and documentaries. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel saves itself by doing away with the exotic while keeping the real.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 27th, 2012.
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