Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

A married couple, two men and three other women severally take themselves away from middle-class and middle-age struggles in England, and fly to Jaipur, India to what is touted as ‘the best exotic Marigold Hotel for the elderly and beautiful’. The appeal is totally senescent with the promise of a sanctuary that awaits them.

All except retired judge, Graham, have never been to India. Life, or niche marketing, has a way of putting together dissimilar people with common aspirations. But as shown in the photo above, it is a case of delayed domestic flight. Not wanting to waste a moment of their golden years, the motley crew resolutely pick up their luggage and follow Graham to take a train and then ride a bus to Jaipur.

Mahatma Gandhi is known to insist on travelling on train in third class. When asked why, his answer was simply that there was no fourth class. Public transport in India - train, bus or tuk-tuk [auto-rickshaw] - is notoriously over-crowded and over-flowing, and not for the faint-hearted. As Graham assures his fellow travellers while boarding a jam-packed public bus, “The rule in India: there’s always space!”

Mirroring their lives, the travellers soon find that India is ‘a riot of noise and colours, an assault on the senses. It’s like a wave - resist and you will be worn out; dive into it and you’ll soon find your own rhythm. This is another world, the challenge is to cope with it... not just cope, but thrive in it.’

I see that life is necessarily a cacophony of hope and despair, of love and pain, and of fear and discovery.

The 2-hour story allows each visitor to deal sufficiently with the discordance within while finding equilibrium in a culture that thrives on chaos. Some flounder as they stoically resist India’s offer of diversity into their lives and fail to recognize the imperative for change. Others take it all in – the dreams and disappointments, loneliness and little pleasures of life. The survivors embrace them all! 

Here's a run-through of the key characters and the issues that are especially pronounced in one's autumn years such as being single again, fear of aging, looking for new beginnings and relationships.

Tom Wilkinson is GRAHAM -
A retired judge who comes out about his sexuality as he looks for the lover he was forced to leave 40 years ago in Jaipur.  Each day, he visits the official records office to locate his lover. A day after they reunited and spent an entire night catching up, he passed away quietly sitting on a swing at the hotel.

Judi Dench plays EVELYN [my namesake]
A recent widow who has to sell her apartment to settle her late husband’s debts. Married for 40 years, she has never done anything on her own or even heard her own voice. She likes to write and blogs about her life in India to keep her grown son and his family back home informed about her going-ons in India. She is open to all that life delivers, and upon arrival, quickly lands a job that trains young and educated Indian telemarketers how to engage older prospects half-way round the world. From the moment she arrives at the run-down hotel, she accepts a broken chair and dusty bed in her room with an open mind. After all, nobody travels half way round the world to inspect chairs and beds, but to find new life experiences.

Bill Neihy and Penelope Wilton as DOUGLAS & JEAN
Married for 39 years, are as different as chalk and cheese, or in this case, cheese and chapatti. Douglas is hungry for affection and affirmation from his frigidly apathetic wife who has a crush over Graham [more because of his success as a judge]. In response, he tells her right out that he is gay. Rejected and revolted, she packs to leave without Douglas, but not before acknowledging the expiration of their marriage.  Douglas, who has become good friends with Evelyn, returns to the hotel to look for her to begin a new relationship.

Ronald Pickup as NORMAN
An aging and flailing don juan who is obsessed with his virility and picks up women with the hope of bedding them. Finally, he succeeds and finds the companionship of an affluent and lonely white woman whom he meets at an exclusive club in Jaipur.

Celia Imrie as MADGE
A serial bride who sees babysitting her grandchildren as an impediment to her prospect of finding a new man, flees to India to find a new husband. She makes clear her fears, ‘I don’t want to be old and condescended and marginalized.’ Like Norman, she pays a substantial subscription to access a prestigious club to meet rich men. With less than her share of candidates then Norman, she later becomes open to the local elite.

Maggie Smith as MURIEL
A housekeeper until she was replaced by younger recruits and let go by the family she has served all her life. While waiting for an operation to fix a fractured hip, she is told that she can get it done sooner if she accepts a new programme that outsources the procedure to India.  In the process, her negative cultural bias, assumptions and values undergo transformation, and she decides to stay and help the fledgling hotel owner run his business.

Dev Patel as SONNY
Sonny runs the dilapidated hotel with overpromises and under-delivery. With no funds to make the necessary repairs, he is optimistic to the point of being unrealistic and impractical. He is quick to override guests’ complaints and practical business advice with the ready catchphrase, ‘Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end!’ His youthful ways and fixation on the success of the hotel provides contrast and comic relief to the plot that centres on a group of elderly guests.

After the movie, a stranger turned to me and said, ‘What a wonderful show.’ It’s as if, somehow, we have also made the journey to India ourselves. Totally gratifying.

If you’re thinking of planning a similar getaway, please be warned though that it’s not the Marigold Hotel in Goa!