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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: an exercise in British wish-fulfilment

3:36 pm - 05/04/2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: an exercise in British wish-fulfilment

The Indians in this film are just so obliging, presenting a curiously old-fashioned form of cultural anaesthesia

Nikita Lalwani guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 February 2012 13.30 EST

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, John Madden's new comedy about English retirees in India, starts with an alluring mix of the exotic and the familiar: Dame Judi is on the phone in her London flat, speaking to a person in an Indian call centre who doesn't know how to accommodate the fact that her husband is dead. We chance upon Dame Maggie being marvellously racist in her wheelchair. The audience is encouraged to laugh at her absurdity, consider how times have changed, and settle into their seats.

Great Britain is not working for these people as their pension pots collapse and their children and partners disappear into the horizon. How will they find an answer? This is a beginning rich with anticipation and the potential for crossed wires, tension, redemption, the full works.

But then the cast goes to India, and amid the teeming multiplicity of the country, the same characters suddenly seem utterly self-involved. "India, like life itself, is what you put into it," says Dame Judi's character, with heart-crushing banality. The country becomes an orientalist backdrop for personal growth for each character, in the recent fashion of the Julia Roberts quasi-mystical vehicle Eat, Pray, Love.

Why should this matter, especially in a feel-good film of this nature? Director David Cronenberg once said that "all stereotypes turn out to be true. This is a horrifying thing about life". But in cinema, that most affecting of global exports, such an attitude can feel especially pernicious if it gets into the wrong hands. The problem with stereotypes is, of course, that they depend upon who is doing the gazing. They are not standard across the board. And the Indians we meet in this film conform to a peculiar genre – they are just so obliging, in their uncomplicated ways, that instead of giving us a tour round the promised "riot of colour and noise", the film presents a curiously old-fashioned, colonial form of cultural anaesthesia.

The hotel manager is a naive, Kipling-quoting simpleton, who is immensely grateful to Dame Judi and Dame Maggie for intervening so that his business and love life do not go down the pan due to his ineptitude. His girlfriend works in a call centre, but, again, needs help from Dame Judi on how to speak to British people on the phone – she is similarly very thankful for this service.

Even the Dalit serving woman who takes Dame Maggie back to her shanty town and is subjected to the full force of her bigotry, is excited to be in her presence again once they return to the hotel.

Most confusing of all, Tom Wilkinson's character goes in search of the love of his life – the servant boy with whom he had a disastrous love affair when he was a child himself. Fifty years on, and the boy is now married, but his wife just stands by helpfully, twitching her sari, while the men emote and reunite. It is bizarre to watch.

Why do none of these people tell these British visitors where to go? Why don't they display the prickly, disruptive, aggressive emotions that you'd expect to emerge at these sorts of interventions? What's with the continual compliance? To go back to Cronenberg, there is no truth for me in these stereotypes. But the infuriating thing is that apparently they represent a kind of truth for someone else. Or even worse, a kind of wish-fulfilment. The film begins by mocking the very desire for a nostalgic return to the days of the Raj that it then proceeds to emulate. Whom is this for?

A cursory look at the kind of material coming out of India of late reveals a country with a much more nuanced profile: Peepli Live, the dark comedy by writer-director Anusha Rizvi, shows impoverished farmers and their families contemplating suicide for cash. Beautiful Thing, by journalist Sonia Faleiro, documents the lives of table dancers in Mumbai with precision, empathy and awe.

Even These Foolish Things, the witty book on which this film is based, presents a much more feasible core idea: the retirement hotel is not a decrepit desert palace but a complex in Bangalore, India's silicon valley, and the people who conceive and run the place are 50-year-old men on a mission – an entrepreneur and doctor – rather than a buffoon with low IQ who needs foreign aid to save the day. It is difficult to understand the benefit of airbrushing these people out and replacing them with this vision of universal gratitude. The result is oddly depressing, a kind of lazy muzak for the soul.


Ugh. This article is a bit old but while I was watching an extremely problematic episode of Oprah's Next Chapter with her visit to India on Sunday*, a commercial for this movie coming Stateside popped up and from the trailer I knew it was going to be another White People's Life Problems the Movie IN INDIA bullshit and Dev Patel already working the Magical Minority role (although I can't blame the guy trying to get roles even if they play up stereotypes). Ugh, really? Can we have a movie with POC that isn't all about how shitty their lives are for once? Or that White media stop using POC culture for their consumption for some good feels? And my fucking god, the fucking movie title?!?

*And that episode, oh boyyyyy. It was awful. I nearly punched through the TV when she was showcasing his White man who wrote a book about the impoverished citizens of Mumbai who proceeded to wax poetically with his White classist romanticism bullshit of how ~real~ this people lived in soul crushing poverty. And no one really gave the people a real voice on what they want. The only good things amidst the orientialism throughout that episode are about the widows in India and that brief talk about shadeism/colorism similarities between the US and India which was too brief.

Edit for linking the source.

spiegel11th 5th-May-2012 07:22 am (UTC)
Okay, so… hands up people who have actually seen this movie, and those who are just Complaining About Movies You Haven’t Watched. Hm-hmm, yeah.

I have a few quibbles about this article, so I’ll start with the specific and go onto the general. Firstly, Maggie Smith’s character – or, at least, her behaviour at the beginning of the film, is meant to be detestable. She is intensely racist, and universally offensive. If the writer finds the reaction to this, in those around her, to be a self-congratulatory “Look how much better we are!”, perhaps she should seek better company. The responsibility of a director for the reactions of their audience does have its limits.
Secondly, Dev Patel’s character reminded me of nothing so much as the scores of white men in various media who suddenly decide to uproot their lives (and, frequently, the lives of their families) to pursue their Life-Long Dream, having been struck by mid-life crisis; with the distinction that he, being far younger, is disrupting far fewer lives in his poorly-focussed attempts to reach his goal.
Thirdly, there are many businesses in the world that employ cultural consultants of one sort or another – this isn’t colonialist fantasy, but the real world providing some narrative convenience.
Fourthly, the ‘full force of [Maggie Smith’s] bigotry’ is apparently yelling at a group of young boys playing so roughly with her wheelchair that they appear to be in the throes of dismantling it. I realise that different people have different ideas on guest-host courtesy, but if someone tried that on me, a verbal lashing would be the least of it.
Fifthly, I’m… confused by the writer’s confusion, I suppose, at the reuniting of the two old friends and lovers. Does she think that bisexuality doesn’t exist? Does she think that a person’s only two choices are to cling to a lost love for all eternity, or forget them forever? Does she think that the wife should have been angry, jealous, concerned? What, about this scenario, is at all bizarre?

As for my more general complaints – thanks for disregarding any and all agency on the part of the actors! Really, I’m sure the Indian men and women who took part in the production would love you to tell them more about how oppressed they are! And finally… what, when you get down to it, is the point of this article? To remind us that colonialism is a thing? To tell us how terrible the western exotic fantasy is, that leads thousands every year to travel to whichever part of Asia they attach the most significance (in which case, you might wish to warn the many, many communities that rely on tourist dollars)? To tell us that we should be watching better quality movies? What?

[And, yes – I watched this movie, and had a wonderful evening.]
scrawl42 5th-May-2012 07:44 am (UTC)
Thank you for offering a different viewpoint; I'm more inclined to see the movie and form my own opinions now :)
lil_insanity 5th-May-2012 09:28 pm (UTC)
I definitely think it's important to see movies before you form an opinion about them.
spiegel11th 6th-May-2012 01:22 am (UTC)
Maybe not so much an opinion in general - I mean, I don't need to see 'Cannibal Holocaust' to know that I really, truly don't want to go anywhere near it; or that it's incredibly explicit and disgusting - but this sort of hatred, I guess, seems just stupid from people who've, what, heard one line? Seen the trailer?
I read 'Twilight' to form my own opinion [sub-par writing, sexist undertones, boring self-obsessed heroine], I watched a Justin Bieber music video to form my own opinion [creepy hair, creepy song, average singing ability] - all it takes is a little consideration for critical thinking.
lil_insanity 6th-May-2012 01:44 am (UTC)
Yeah, I agree. You can say, "Oh, that really doesn't look like something I would like" after only hearing a little about something, but it seems strange to form detailed opinions based on somebody else's account.
etherealtsuki 5th-May-2012 08:03 am (UTC)
Are you a POC?

Once, it doesn't matter if Maggie Smith's character is meant to be taken seriously or not, the Old Racist character are extremely problematic because it lulls and reassure the White audiences that they aren't like 'that' anymore when POC know quite a different story.

Two, she is more referring to the consultants in the context in the movie mainly.

Third, you don't need to see the movie to know it's full of orientalistic bullshit. They fucking used 'exotic' in the title, a term that has been used to simplify and commodify POC cultures for the White majority's amusement. These movie and the synopsis are a big honking red flag of orientalism.

Not to mention the shit the director says is just shit icing on a shit cake. It fucking tells me everything.

So no, I refuse to see such bullshit and waste hours of my time to only be reaffirmed what this promotion has been all about because it made itself quite clear.

Edited at 2012-05-05 08:07 am (UTC)
spiegel11th 6th-May-2012 01:48 am (UTC)
Nope. Australian of German-Jewish extract.

I can sort of see your point re. the trope in general, but consider that all but about three characters in the movie are, if not old, than getting on. This leaves a writer with the option of having the stock Racist Old Man/Woman, or having a group of old white people stunningly free of prejudice. I know I'd find the latter far more fantastical.
My point with the consultants is that it is a real-world job, so why treat it like it's some fantastical western creation for the benefit of the story? And why wouldn't someone be grateful to the person whose job is 'How to avoid getting abused or hung up on by strangers in the UK', and who does this job in a friendly and personable manner?
Yeah, the word exotic is something of a red flag. But do bear in mind that people in non-western countries have known for a fair while now that appealing to that orientalist fantasy is a good way of getting tourists dollars in, so these terms (and names like 'exotic (noun or adjective) hotel') do appear not infrequently.
As for that quote from the director... yeah, I have no idea what he was even trying to say there. At all.

When it comes down to it, I don't give a good goddamn whether you see it or not. It's not one of my favourite movies of all time, I don't have any money invested in it, it's just not that important to me.
But I do care about people making such vitriolic judgements based on such scanty evidence. It shows lack of critical thinking, and it's lazy. How can we demand it of the 'Video games/movies/TV shows aren't sexist, you're just oversensitive!' brigade if we don't do it ourselves?
keeni84 5th-May-2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
Did you see and like The Help?
spiegel11th 6th-May-2012 01:25 am (UTC)
Nope. I gave reading the book a go, and couldn't finish it because of how completely unsympathetic I found the main character, and how incomprehensible I found her behaviour.
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