Let me quote from the first lines of the Wikipedia summary: "A group of seven British retirees have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India". The retirees are a cast of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel (who starred in Slumdog Millionaire), Celia Imbrie, Ronald Pickup, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton. (Incidentally, apropos of nothing – how often have you done what I just did, write a piece, start to proof it before sending, and find you hit the wrong key and have deleted it all and must start again?).
I went because I would go to any film that had Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. I went despite the fact the film opened to mixed reviews. The New York Daily News sniffed at "John Madden's disappointingly shallow comedy . . ." and gave it a mere two stars.
The Daily News missed the point. Here are a group of characters well past their sell-by date, being told by Sonny (Dev Patel), the enthusiastic part owner of the hotel, that "if everything is not alright, it is because it isn't the end. In the end, everything will be alright". The British travelers find the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not quite what it had seemed on the internet. Not all the rooms have doors. Some have insects. One room has birds. The telephones do not work. Sonny, in his enthusiasm, assures everyone that all will be well, phones will ring, doors will be found.
The travelers are not well off – Evelyn (Judi Dench) has had to sell her home in England to pay off the debts of her late husband and has to hunt for work in India. Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a retired housekeeper with deeply racist views who has come to India for an inexpensive hip replacement. Jean (Penelope Wilton) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) are a retired couple who lost their life savings investing in their daughter's internet start-up. One of the more interesting characters is Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retired high court judge who had grown up in India as a child, but returned to Britain. He is now trying to find a man with whom he had an intense relationship in his youth. He is not sure if the man is even alive or, if he finds him, if he will be welcomed – the relationship had caused a scandal in the distant past.
I identified with Graham, since I had been in love with a High School friend – before I even knew what love was. We were close but at the point I told him I was homosexual the relationship ended and I've wondered – it is more than sixty years now – what happened with his life. He became a lawyer. I assume married and had children and grandchildren. I still think back to him as a hero. When, in 1949 I returned by bus from New York to Los Angeles, taking the deep Southern route (having heard Bayard Rustin speak of his chain gang experience), I had tried sitting in the colored section and when, in Louisiana, I was ordered by the bus driver to move to the white section, I was sure my High School friend would have handled it more courage than I.
I remember India from my one visit, in 1986, for a Triennial of the War Resisters International. We landed in Mumbai (then still called Bombay) and took the train to a Gandhi Ashram, which impressed me greatly. But while I was grateful to the Indian family in Mumbai which housed Myrtle Solomon and me after the Triennial, I was horrified by the poverty, the beggars, the dust, and by the fact the water was never safe to drink. In that sense I sympathized with the one member of the group who, nearly mad from the dust and chaos, returned to England.
But for the others, one by one, they found in this strange land, so chaotic, crowded, noisy, filled with life and color, something they had missed in England. Bill Nighy's character falls in love with the city, setting out each day to explore the temples. Muriel (Maggie Smith) grudgingly comes to admit the Indian doctors did a fine job and, despite her racist views, has something of a breakthrough encounter with the untouchable cleaning woman at the hotel.
There is one "true" love story, when Sonny (Dev Patel) falls madly in love with the beautiful Sunaina who works at the call centre (one of those places we reach when we call our computer or telephone company for information). He defies his mother to announce they will be married. And it is the Maggie Smith character who saves the hotel when she takes charge of the accounts, finds the hotel is not a losing proposition but just needs a competent book keeper, a post which she suggests she should take on.
So in the end the telephones work, and the guests, who had been so tentative in their first encounters with India, accept it as part of their lives. What is fascinating about the film is that we are not talking about young people discovering a new adventure, but a group, all past sixty, some past seventy and still counting, which finds that there are always new beginnings.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delight. Even, I suspect, for those of you under fifty.