Slumming it in India
May 16, 2012 — Review
Written by Jenny Bourne
A critical look at the recent box office hit – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
You can almost hear the film executives: ‘hey you know Slumdog Millionaire was such a success and so was Ladies in Lavender, why don’t we just combine the two – a set of wistful old English people set against an exotic Indian background? And then throw in some other British stars like Tom Wilkinson and Ronald Pickup and for laughs we could add two of those sly Calendar Girls. We have a ready audience with all those grey pounders.’ I know it did not happen like that since this film is based on a 2004 book by Deborah Moggach. But from start to finish I found this film synthetic, contrived and manipulative.
If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a feel good film, give me feel bad any time. It is deeply offensive to Indians, India and the elderly – composed as it is of stereotypes, clichés and downright mistakes – whilst simultaneously appearing to take on racial prejudice (of working-class needer of hip replacement played by Maggie Smith, unable to really throw off Lady Bracknell via Downton Abbey) and xenophobia (of middle-class end-of-marriage wife played by Penelope Wilton). The colonialism revealed in the film is so palpable I am not sure when irony was intended: Tom Wilkinson’s former high court judge character has to show young street children how to hold a cricket bat; Maggie Smith, though supposedly just a former domestic servant, has to show Indians how to run a hotel; Judi Dench has to teach call centre workers how to be human on the phone (and presumably therefore, sell us that more efficiently services we do not want).
We are being invited to sample India, but it is a cultural India of the tourist brochure and guide book – where everything is glossed over. So we see a call centre (India is modern) but everyone is smiling and laughing and we are being told to laugh at their silly English. There is no alienation, no sense of the exploitation and isolation of such work. We are introduced to a Dalit, and she is not just in impeccable sari but also preparing food for the hotel. Really?
But by far the most offensive element in the film is the playing of the incompetent hotel manager by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. His portrayal – played only for laughs and bearing no true characterisation – was more reminiscent of Peter Sellers in The Millionairess than anyone you could meet in Jaipur. And then there is the ‘character’ of India itself. Once again, as in Slumdog Millionaire, there is a gratuitous use of clichéd long panning shots of streets, jostling crowds, traffic jams, markets, festivals, even funeral pyres and bathers on the Ghats of the river. We, the viewers, like the English characters, are being assailed by noise and sights (and implicitly smells) and very, very gently being chided against being judgmental.
Those little Englanders who never got over the loss of empire and are ill at ease with multiculturalism will absolutely love it. They can feel at home and yet slightly superior as they watch the foibles, loves and lessons learnt of these stock British characters (played by the cream of British thespians) set in an exotic location. Smugness is, unfortunately, woven into the film via the voice-over of the Judi Dench character’s daily blog. (Yes isn’t it funny, the silver surfers have mastered technology!) This narrative of her and the others’ personal journeys is as cloying as it is predictable.
The film will be a great box office hit – this is just how Daily Mail readers need to experience globalisation.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.