The making of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Director John Madden and Dame Judi Dench on the sets in Rajasthan. Photo: Special Arrangement.   | Photo Credit: mail_grjgm

To kick off the U.S. launch of the British film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a press conference was recently held at Manhattan's posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The film, set in Rajasthan, stars renowned English actors Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Tony Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton among the seven “seniors” who answer hotelier Dev Patel's ad, enticing them to “outsource” their retirement to India. These stars and famed English theatre and film director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) spoke warmly and humorously about moviemaking in India. Unanimously, they admired India as they recounted their hilarious experiences.

“It was guerrilla filmmaking,” said Penelope Wilton. “Before you can blink, there'd be 200 people watching, so we'd dash in, shoot a bit, disappear, then return after the crowd left, to do a bit more…” Dame Judi, who was “fascinated, absolutely bewitched by India,” described it as “an assault on the senses.” She said, “It was nerve-wracking to sit side-saddle on a scooter (in the film) without a helmet on with Bill Nighy, driving with three fingers, waving with the other hand…” Tom Wilkinson spoke of “culture shock, a brain curdling experience of seeing a woman washing her baby in a puddle and then, 50 yards down the road, see huge wealth.” On the whole, they were all “amazed by the energy, the emerging middle class, and intelligent young people who spoke clearly about what they want.” They agreed, “As Brits, our relationship with India is complicated.” But, “The beauty of people, the colour, the noise, the smell were staggering.” India today surprised them as a thriving, sophisticated country which they all want to revisit. Afterwards, director Madden sat down for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

What attracted you to this project?

India! And the subject — taking a group of characters who don't know each other and exposing them to modern India seemed rich in possibilities. The aged remain central to the family in India, but we wanted to show that old people are not a different race. They're forgotten as an audience and aren't often subjects of movies.

I wanted to shine a light on the issues associated with old age — isolation, bereavement, pain, infirmity, lack of resources — and deal with them humorously.The experience of being old is different for me, than it was in my parents' generation; life expectancy has improved, the possibility of change is good to keep in mind.

In this story, definitions of age fall away as the characters are made young again by the situations they find themselves in. Challenged and overwhelmed by India, they're caught in emotional realignments — friendships, liaisons, rivalries — that spark comic eruptions. There's also cultural collision; humour's the way to show that.

You've compared this film to a Shakespearean play?

I love films that have a mixed tone; this one's a mix of realism and the heightened universe of a Shakespearean comedy. In his mature plays, Shakespeare takes a group of people and puts them in an unfamiliar land — the forest of Arden, Illyria — where the rules are inverted so people have to redefine themselves, their emotional lives, their sense of love and loss. Those plays deal with a sense of intoxication — as in “A Midsummer Night's Dream”— of people losing their bearings, their sense of themselves, in a magical transformation. Here, the magical realm is India and the Marigold Hotel. That rooted the film for me. All the characters and circumstances are real but a whiff of magic, something elevated, releases the comedy and a spiritual undertone.

Many Englishmen who had lived in British India through their formative years, returned later to check out the country…

India's a country you can never completely leave behind. I've only spent four months there — I always wanted to visit and had made a date with my wife — but I can't wait to return. The story of Tom Wilkinson's character is particularly poignant; he longs to return but is terrified to do so until he's confronted with his mortality.

You invented his (gay) character who wasn't in the original?

That was screenwriter Ol Parker's idea. We worked on the script together and wanted to install a reference in the story, an embodiment of the colonial relationship between Britain and India.

Was it hard to assemble this super stellar cast?

Since the characters are all of a certain age, we could cast actors who are at the peak of their abilities. Our most extraordinary resource, they brought the story alive. Their comic talent, acting skill and depth of experience was staggering. The only thing we had to do was bring them together with a skilled ensemble of Indian actors — Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lilette Dubey — and watch them collide with India. The script attracted them. From the first time I read it, in my mind, Judi was the centre of it.

For actors in their 70s, it's hard to find such terrific roles…

It's unusual to find a piece that's as democratic as this where the story's spread not just between those seven Brits, but over nine storylines. It's pleasurable to be in an ensemble where you're not carrying all the big scenes. They'd all worked together before and, since each character's life is transformed in a funny but profound way, the material appealed to them. To ensure that the film would have an audience, the studio got these famous stars.

It's already done so well in England...

With seven such well known actors, every Brit wants to see the film. India's a big draw, too. An intoxicating trailer could be made because India's so vibrant, so rich, such a powerful presence.

Describe your experience of India.

It's an astounding country, I was knocked sideways when I first got there — it has a powerful effect on you. My visceral impressions were made more intense by the pre-monsoon weather; grey, overcast, very hot, very smelly. I saw lot of poverty and didn't know if I could make a comedy there. External things dominated first. Then, the national character, the people's temperament, asserted itself; the way Indians greet the world is transformative. After being there, you come back changed. It's an amazing place but it was disturbing to see how, despite massive economic resurgence, the disparate issues and problems couldn't be pulled together. I couldn't grapple with the inequity. Still, my wife and I felt completely at home, we connected with the country. There's a sense of endurance, patience, openness, tolerance and hospitality. India made me smile, the country smiles back at you, Rajasthan's very welcoming,

Was India's bureaucracy hard to deal with?

It was tough; there were logistical challenges, government restrictions. The city offered to clear the streets, we didn't want that because then we'd have to “create” crowds. One embraces challenges, they were liberating in this film's context. I found it enjoyable to consult with 20 people over my shoulder about the next shot.

There's a moment in the film where Nighy helps Penelope into a bus but before he could help Judi on, some man wandered into the shot! Nighy improvised, Judi cracked up; the man wasn't an extra, he was trying to take the bus, too! Now he's immortalised. Then, in the band singing a song to Judi and Bill, there's another guy — I've no idea how he got there. It was extraordinarily hard getting permission to film on a train. But everyday hassles were inspiring — we filmed through the festive season, everyday seemed to be a holiday. Casting in Bombay during the Ganesh festival, I was surrounded by a group of drummers who drummed around me. I was so overwhelmed that I searched them out for the film.

Do you think this international film will lead to other such films? On seniors?

If it's successful, others will want to make such films. I hope it'll open people's eyes to India. There will be more; even in this film, the story's left open-ended…we did not finish it.

A sequel on the “graying” of the West?

“Seniors” will comprise the movie-going audience for a long time. I know I'll return to that neck of the woods.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 12:16:12 PM |

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