Barbara Kay: India should be insulted by filmdom’s worst exotic cliched film script
Saturday June 9th, 2012
Judi Dench and Celia Imrie in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Showcasing a stellar cast of Britain’s finest seasoned actors, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had all the makings of a light, feel-good entertainment about quirky characters in a novel situation. It turned out to be a heavy-handed, feel-gulled disinterment of moribund national stereotypes, with a side order of pious multiculturalism and smarmy gender correctness. I’ve rarely been so disappointed in a film.
Here’s the promising plot. Seven English oldies, for economic, medical or psychological reasons, are seduced by publicity for promising cheap, cheerful warm-weather retirement in a beautiful old hotel in Jaipur, India. In the brochures the “best exotic” Marigold looks as though it has been gleamingly restored to its former grandeur. In truth, it is a crumbling old insect-ridden pile with missing doors, indifferent plumbing and the kind of charm that’s only visible through rose-coloured glasses. Upon arrival, each of the characters deals with the unexpected challenge according to character and temperament. Those who can adapt, thrive. Those who can’t go home.
They run the gamut of “types.” Amongst them: Judi Dench playing Evelyn, a timid, recently-widowed wife suddenly thrust into penury, who takes an uncharacteristic leap into the unknown; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play a married couple — loyal, long-suffering Douglas and snobby Jean — whose reduced fortunes bring out the stoicism and humility in him, and exacerbate the intolerance and bitchiness in her; Maggie Smith plays Muriel, the sour racist spinster loathing all things un-English, but there for cheap, on-demand hip surgery; Tom Wilkinson is Graham, a long-closeted gay High Court judge, nostalgic for the romantic India of a youthful adventure.
Hilarity is meant to arise from the cultural encounter between diffident Brits and effervescent Indians. But while there is some attempt at individuation with the Brits, the Indians all seemed to come out of a casting call for a Bollywood movie. There wasn’t a stereotype left unexploited: the ambitious but incompetent hotel manager spouting corny karmic clichés instead of making the plumbing work; the overbearing Indian mother who won’t let her son marry his beloved because she isn’t “suitable”; the jolly musicmakers in the street showing their love of life to the stiff upper-lip anglos who are so sadly deficient in spontaneity and sensuous appreciation of life.
Some of the material is insulting to one’s intelligence. Impossibly, the Indians all speak English to each other so that the Brits can “overhear” them to advance the plot, pure aesthetic laziness. And there are several wildly improbable scenarios. For example the tender funeral rites performed for Graham by the old gay lover in the presence of an understanding wife is simply western gendered wish fulfillment run amok.
Then there is one truly wince-making scene. A kindly doctor treating the overtly racist Muriel insists on bringing her to the humble home of a young nursing aide who has been attending her. The young woman’s entire extended family squats on the floor and watches as the young woman offers the bewildered Muriel homemade food that Muriel instinctively shrinks from. But then the kindly doctor says Muriel must accept this gift because it is meant to thank her. But what for? The doctor explains that the young woman is an Untouchable and Muriel has been the only one ever to actually talk to her and acknowledge her humanity. Muriel is aghast to think that her rote “please” and “thank yous” should be accorded such gratitude.
The incident is meant to shake Muriel out of her reflexive intolerance. And it does, but what does it say about Indians? That even a racist white Englishwoman is a finer human being than any ordinary Indian.
But the scene is of a piece with the underlying message running throughout the film. Every single problem in the movie whose source is India’s cultural backwardness or lack of organizational rigour is set right by the Brits who manage — yet again 100 years on – to show the childish colonials how to be fair, how to be just and how to be efficient. Evelyn teaches telephone solicitors how to improve their conversational skills in order to get more sales; Muriel saves the hotel from going under with her bookkeeping and management skills; the despairing young man is given a pep talk by the Brits on why love is more important than tradition, which ends in his happiness and his mother’s enlightenment.
All the happy endings come from British cultural norms. If I were an Indian, I would find this film grossly insulting for its unintended condescension. As a westerner, I’m insulted by the assumption that you can deflect filmgoers’ attention from a lame and clichéd script merely by assembling a bunch of fabulous actors and sprinkling them with curry.