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Best exotic filmy destination
ACosta Brava with more elephants!" That's how one of the British characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel describes Jaipur. The film, also starring Dev Patel, and directed by John Madden, of Shakespeare in Love fame, is about a group of British pensioners who can't afford to retire comfortably in the UK because of badly performing pensions and decide to move to a hotel in Jaipur to see out their golden years. It released in India this Friday. Incidentally, the Costa Brava is a region of Spain that many British pensioners retire to on account of its low cost of living and warm climate.
The comedy-drama depicts, in a mostly humorous way, all the challenges and cultural differences that British 'Old Age Pensioners' (OAPs) face adapting to their new life. An India of 'elephants and chaos' (that exists in the imagination of Britons who have never stepped foot in India) is the one predominantly portrayed in the film. Perhaps that is why its distributors, Fox Star Studios, are aiming at a low-key release in India.
The contemporary India that I experienced as a British person living in Mumbai for three and a half years is very different to the India portrayed in this film, which prefers to exaggerate preconceptions about India. But to be fair, it is a comedy, after all. The film has been especially popular among older people in the UK;many of their experiences of India are probably based on popular preconceptions and media stereotypes of poverty and exotic ones of temples and elephants. And The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel perpetuates those stereotypes, with even an odd depiction or two of racism thrown in.
On a bus to Jaipur, a British pensioner says, "If I can't pronounce it, I don't want to eat it" and another Briton makes out that any food given to foreigners on a bus or train in India will cause food poisoning.
"I would rather stay in - given the alternative", another says when asked why she doesn't venture outside into the streets of India. "How can you bear this country? What do you see I don't ?" she asks another Brit.
Yet the film does depict elements of actual modern India too, such as shiny air-conditioned call centres. But Indian streets are still all about chaos - the OAPs are continually harassed by children, Indian characters shake their heads in a bizarre way and say "Yes" when asked questions requiring a "Yes or No" answer, and the roads are depicted as near-death experiences with lorries, rickshaws and motorbikes all jostling for space.
The crumbling Jaipur hotel that the OAPs arrive at has taps, doors and phones that don't work, and Brits are given roast goat curry to eat. It is all treated in a humorous way but is far from the reality of modern India.
The problems these Britons encounter do not accurately reflect the real challenges younger British expats moving to India face either. These are more likely to be about opening a bank account, getting a PAN card, finding a broker, flat and a maid or cross-cultural dating, than about being harassed by street children or broken taps.
But the film is not all hackneyed or grossly exaggerated. A modern India where young people sleep with each other before marriage, and where Indians go out on dates, is also portrayed.
The so-called 'charm' of India is also portrayed with the OAPs shown playing cricket on the streets with children, being thrilled at exhilarating rickshaw journeys and enjoying haggling in markets. Some of the characters eventually fall deeply in love with India and find a freedom and happiness they had been seeking.
The important and rather dominant role of the Indian mother and close family ties are portrayed in the film too. Patel puts on a fine performance as the disorganised owner of the hotel whose pie-in-the sky dream of offshoring old age to India comes crashing down. The only downside of Patel is that his "Indian" accent is rather unconvincing, as it unfortunately was in 2008's Slumdog Millionaire too.
The film excels not just at comedy but also at looking at the dilemmas old people face in life. Some are waking up to the fact that they are married to the wrong people;that they are all facing death;they want to be happy and not "self-deluded fossils on a backpacking tour" (as one OAP describes herself) and they fear being marginalised. One philosophy conveyed in the film stands out - that everything will be alright in the end and if it's not the end it's not alright, a mindset any traveller will come across a lot in India.
More importantly, the premise of the film, offshoring old age from the UK to India, is, in my view, a good idea. Why not actually start retirement homes for British folk in India? The impact of the financial meltdown has been to destroy many British people's pensions and India could become the next Costa Brava. Who knows?
The film has been quite a hit in the West. It was released in the UK in February and then went worldwide, and has so far grossed $80m (Rs 400 crore) at the box office. In the UK it has raked in £20m (Rs 170 crore), topping the UK box office in its second week. US box-office takings have been quite significant too.
Based on These Foolish Things by English novelist Deborah Moggach, this film is clearly made with an elderly British audience in mind. The average age of a person in the UK is at least 40, with a fifth of the population aged over 65. With an average age of 25 and less than five per cent of the population in India being over 65, will a film depicting the problems of old people in the UK, their hidden racist attitudes and their struggle to adapt to life in India resonate? We'll find out over an Indian summer.
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