There is a degree of stereotyping that comes with foreign films about India. Just as Parisians must accept accordion music and sweeping shots of the Eiffel Tower with a c’est la vie attitude, I too have come to accept the trite call-centre/elephant/bazaar scenes as unavoidable. Without these cliches, no doubt foreign audiences would rise up in protest at having been cheated out of their money’s worth of camels and havelis. Which is why, my only yardstick for judging the merit of a film set in India is whether nor not the film manages to disentangle itself from the colour and the confusion of India that film-makers are so enamoured by, and whether they allow their characters to be more than National Geographic narrators.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tells the story of seven British senior citizens who find themselves on a one-way journey to Jaipur for a variety of reasons. Some are lonely, some still crave adventure, some need surgery, some have no money to live in England and others are on a personal quest. They find themselves in a ramshackle hotel run by Dev Patel, who is also on a quest of his own: proving his worth to his family. The seven seniors are played by a stellar cast: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton. Yes, that’s pretty much 80% of the Britain’s Greatest Actors List. And by God, they have proved why they’re so deserving of their numerous awards and orders of chivalry (fun fact: there are 2 DBEs, 1 CBE and 1 OBE among them). While it takes a director with great restraint to stop himself from making a self-indulgent film filled with long shots of palaces and elephants, scenes of characters oohing and aahing palaces and poverty and spouting patronizing dialogue about India’s rich and poor divide, it also takes strong actors to take command of their characters and really internalize their histories.
But why oh why would they ruin this movie by putting Dev Patel in it? Every single scene with him was irritating and completely unnecessary. His scenes with Lillette Dubey tested my patience to the utmost. I was willing to forgive this film for all its cliches, except for the big fat cliche that is Dev Patel’s story arc: he proves himself at his job and marries the girl of his dreams. His mommy doesn’t approve. No, really. That’s all there is.
On the other hand, Tom Wilkinson got to be a retired High Court judge who goes to India to look for his gay lover from his youth. Maggie Smith was brilliant as a retired housekeeper battling with feeling irrelevant and her friendship with the servant at the hotel was such a natural progression. Or Penelope Wilton, who just plain hates India: she is a perfect foil for all the tourists who are so amazed by the dust and colours while she only has eyes for the dirt and squalor. Despite playing such a disagreeable character, she manged to bring empathy and realism to her role. And Bill Nighy! Full disclosure: I am a little bit in love with him but that doesn’t mean that his idealism and humour wasn’t wonderful to behold. His ability to take so much pleasure in being able to fix a faucet or being able to bargain for a scarf or visiting an ancient temple may have been a bit too Incredible India! for some, but I thought his character worked perfectly in the ensemble. The others had such sadness, longing and even bitterness in them that one needs a Bill Nighy to remind us that one’s daughter may lose all your life savings in an ill-advised internet project but hope springs eternal. Of course, one also needs a Ronald Pickup to remind us that there are those who are 70 years old and don’t need Viagra.
But Dev Patel. Dev Goddamned Patel. Every time I think of the movie and some nice line that Judi Dench spouted (as the resident narrator), I think of Dev Patel’s smirk and his accent and am filled with blood lust. The fact that the climax of the film was centred around him, his insipid girlfriend and annoying mother came very close to ruining the film for me. And why did his girlfriend have to work in a call centre? She could’ve been an accountant, a salesgirl or a hedge fund managed but no, they HAD to make her a goddamn call centre employee who conveniently enough, needed to be taught about Britain by Judi Dench. But then, Penelope Wilton snapping at Bill Nighy and telling him, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!” was priceless and saved the film. Perhaps the ending was a little too neatly tied up, but who doesn’t love a happy ending? All in all, A for effort.