While I brought down the average age in the audience by about 30 years, I thoroughly enjoyed the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (BEMH). Based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, BEMH tells the story of a group of British pensioners who travel to Jaipur, India to live at a less than ready retirement hotel. The movie is led by a brilliant cast including perennial favorites such as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy. In addition to the glorious landscapes and scenery the film presents of India, a country that provides visitors a rush of one’s senses, the individual characters’ story lines were also fantastic especially since I felt they could relate to many travelers and expatriates, regardless of their geographic locale.
Tom Wilkinson plays the character of Graham, a recently retired High Court judge who had spent his childhood in India. From the beginning, Graham is the leader of the pack, explaining the ways of the culture to his bewildered new friends, communicating with the locals outside of the English language, simply feeling at home in a country that at one time was his home. Upon landing in India, the group discovers that their flight to Jaipur has been delayed. Graham takes it upon himself to come up with alternate transportation since the delay simply won’t do. He arranges travel on a bus to Jaipur’s city center and then to the hotel on rickshaws, two-wheeled passenger carts pulled by a human runner, a common sight throughout many developing countries in Asia. While the others in the group are aghast over the people, the traffic, the overall madness that is India to first time visitors, Graham feels young and exhilarated again. The character of Graham greatly reminded me of *Sam, a girl I studied abroad with in Costa Rica. As a child in the 1980s, she had lived in El Salvador for five years with her family, her father working for the Christian ministries at the time. This was during an infamous period when El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war. When many in our group were dealing with the culture shock that arises when living in a developing country in sometimes harsh conditions, Sam was used to it. Her Spanish was already fluent and while Costa Rica was not El Salvador, she still felt at home.
Maggie Smith plays the character of Muriel, a retired housekeeper who goes to India at the request of her doctor, who tells her that not only is the hip replacement she needs considerably cheaper there, the wait time to have one is also less. To put it mildly, Muriel is a racist, a common trait exhibited by many elderly persons living with a large population of individuals from former colonies. It is in India where she is confronted with her racist tendencies. When attempting to engage in conversation with the hotel’s maid, as she was once a housekeeper herself, she is told by Graham that the maid is an untouchable, a person of the lowest caste in India, a group that for centuries was discriminated against. (They still are even though it is now illegal.) While this means nothing to British Muriel, the maid is so touched and happy someone spoke to her that she invites Muriel to her home to meet her family. All of this arranged through Muriel’s kind Indian doctor. When at the home Muriel is given something to eat. In front of the eager and expectant faces of the family, she flat out says to the doctor in English, “I’m not eating that,” to which he replies that if she doesn’t, it would be a terrible snub to the maid and her family. This particular scene reminded me of a time when I went with my Mexican host parents to visit a woman who used to work for them. The former worker and her family were extremely bereft, but the woman had prepared a meal for my host parents. (My host mom was gracious enough to say I could abstain from partaking which to this day I am still thankful for since my host mom confided in me later on that she had gotten sick from whatever she had eaten.) Regardless of the country or culture, when people prepare a meal for a special guest that is more than they might eat in a week’s time, one cannot refuse the hospitality that is offered.
Bill Nighy plays the character of Doug who along with his wife Jean (played by Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton) have come to India broke. They used their life savings to invest in their daughter’s start-up business and no longer have the money to live in a posh retirement setting in England. While Doug embraces just about everything that makes up his new surroundings, always venturing out, exploring centuries old attractions, Jean retreats inward, appalled by the smells, the constant mobs of people, the street beggar children. One evening when Doug is sharing with the group a story of his visit to a famous nearby temple, his wife only makes jokes, saying that elephant dung is just about the only thing one smells in India. To say Jean is homesick is an understatement; she inextricably refuses to change and to adapt to her new surroundings. Each day when the group members go about on their own business, Jean stays indoors within the confines of the hotel, only stepping out if she absolutely has to. While I have never personally encountered anyone like the character of Jean, I still have met enough people abroad who resemble her in some ways-those that refuse to acknowledge that nothing about a new surrounding should resemble an old one, that nothing is going to seem enjoyable until you actually give something a try, that things are not going to change for you but rather it is the reverse. While a part of me wanted to yell at Wilton’s character, another part of me felt slightly bad for her, as I know such people exist, people who are deeply lost and afraid to live.
While the film doesn’t show too much of a tourist side of Jaipur, it certainly relays an emotional side of traveling and living abroad that I feel many people can relate to. India is one of many countries in the world that I’m sure both frightens and excites people, and as the film and its characters show, a country, its culture and its people, is entirely what you make of it.