If there is a group of people who ought to know that India—much ballyhooed these days as a land of bustling ambition and entrepreneurial promise—is not all that it is cracked up to be, it is the British. The rulers of India as recently as 65 years ago, they made a nifty colonial profit off the place, but also died in astounding numbers from heatstroke, dysentery, malaria, encephalitis, and boredom. Exotic as the place may have been, it could also damn well kill you.
This vital fact doesn’t dissuade the seven British protagonists of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (in theaters May 4) from swapping their suburban English lives, which they can barely afford—what with rising health-care costs and mortgages—for a chance to retire in cheap, modern, vibrant, English-speaking India. What ensues is pretty much what happens to all travelers on their first trip to India—excitement (what a clean airport!), surprise (so many swarms of people!), horror (how they drive!), pity (poor sods living in slums!), acceptance (but they are happy!), and even death (which, if you hate the place, might not be the worst option). The only difference between the ordinary traveler’s experience and that of this oddball crew—which includes powerful thespians Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Tom Wilkinson playing up their twilight years—is that the dilapidated hotel they’ve chosen (the Exotic Marigold of the title) also happens to be the place in which they have elected to die. This outsourcing operation has gone badly awry.
Adding to their sense of grievance is the hotel’s annoying and ingratiating Indian Fawlty, Sonny Kapoor, played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny, we learn, has inherited this ramshackle property in Jaipur from his late father, who dreamed of running a hotel; unfortunately, when the guests arrive, this dream is still in draft form, with no doors on the rooms and blankets of dust where there should be proper bedding. “In India, we have a saying—everything will be all right in the end,” he explains. “So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.” He seems to believe his own fantasies, and wants the same for his guests. But Sonny’s slightly frazzled dreamer is a blur with a buffoonish Indian accent copped from Apu (that’s Apu of The Simpsons, not the Satyajit Ray trilogy). He’s also a vehicle for squeezing in two favorite Western fascinations with India: call centers and arranged marriage. (Sonny is trying to marry a girl from a call center against his mother’s wishes.)
But this is a minor distraction. When the film, based on the 2004 novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, focuses on how the British retirees see India anew, it can be very interesting and funny in its own right. This is particularly the case when following the character of Graham (Tom Wilkinson), an ex-judge who lived in the country in his youth and is now quietly seeking an Indian man with whom he had a doomed affair. Heavy-lidded and paunchy, Wilkinson is perfect in his portrayal of a man oddly at peace with the country. But when Evelyn (Judi Dench) teaches a group of fawning call-center workers how to speak politely to British customers, or Muriel (Maggie Smith) transforms from an amusing racist biddy in a wheelchair to the best friend of an untouchable sweeper woman, the film relies on scenarios where foreigners get to civilize the willing natives in return for a little emotional catharsis.
Given its shaky overall conceit (no one would spend the rest of his or her life in a Third-World country without doing some basic research on the place), the story is at its best when the characters start thinking about the end of their lives rather than their new home. Dench is often superb as a soft, skittish widow coming to terms with the fact that her husband has left her saddled with debt. Bill Nighy, playing an unhappily married man named Douglas, is equally convincing as the sort of strapping Briton who can look unfazed in even the most sordid of surroundings.
As these characters learn to cope with India and even enjoy the place, you begin to see in them the ghosts of the tough men and women who ruled the country years before. “I’m really loving this,” screams Norman (Ronald Pickup) as a rickety Indian bus careens through the countryside. At these moments, India—crumbling and mildewed as a backdrop—begins to seem real as well, a place just like any other, where death and destruction can neither be solved nor outrun, only endured.