The unexpected popularity of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" has made this relaxed comedy a global hit. And not only among Anglophiles, lovers of India or the retirement crowd, though there is much in the film to please each of those groups. Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel “These Foolish Things” and directed by John Madden, the film offers virtually every viewer something to identify with or revel in. It features a wide-ranging set of characters with particular adventures. The journey also has universal appeal, not least because it leads viewers to ask themselves, What would I be like in India or any exotic culture with just a small, motley group of strangers from home by my side? That is, it contains a self-test that is instantly engaging.
The main plotline concerns one couple and five single retirees, none of whom knew each other in England, who fly to India in response to an advertisement for what promises to be a lavish but affordable resort. They find much less than they hoped for in the setting, but much more than most of them bargained for in other, significant ways.
The cast is a marvel of ensemble acting. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) is a recent widow who learns after her husband’s death that he had spent their life savings. When her sons begin to plan her future, she thanks them and books passage to India. She is winsome, self-reliant, open to a new life, and she finds it.
When we first see Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), she is a complaining hospital patient in need of a hip replacement. She adamantly refuses to be treated by anyone whose skin is “too dark.” So why she flies to India for quick surgery is hard to explain, unless perhaps she suffers from unbearable pain, which could also account for her crotchety, self-absorption. Eventually, Muriel tells her own poignant story to a woman who cannot understand a word of English, a local "untouchable" who is thankful for Muriel’s “kindness.” “But I haven’t been kind,” Muriel blurts out, truthfully. Still, this servant’s expression of gratitude marks the beginning of Muriel’s transformation. Ultimately, she is healed of much more than a broken hip and becomes the linchpin of the hotel enterprise.
Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), a High Court judge, was brought up in Jaipur and has returned. He is the sole member of the group without financial constraints. A gay man, he has come to find his one-time Indian lover.
Doug and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are an unhappily married couple, each of whom is attracted to someone else at the hotel. Their bickering adds an ounce of tragedy to this comedy. Jean cannot, or will not, cope with India, while Doug enjoys discovering the city without her.
Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) and Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) are both on the make, and good storytelling keeps them from finding each other. A friendship, or something close to it, does develop, however, and their antics are fun to watch.
The young Indian entrepreneur whose dream is a fully booked Marigold Hotel is Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionnaire”). His infectious enthusiasm infuses the film with youthful idealism and energy. Sonny loves Sunaina (Tena Desae), a worker in a call center, and hopes to marry her when he makes the hotel a success. But he is not the sole owner of the property, as his mother reminds him. Forget this dream, she tempts, accept an arranged marriage.
What may seem obvious by now is that age has little to do with the film. And it would be a shame if it limited the audience at all. In fact all of the characters hold something important in common. All face prospects that are too small, a world too cramped for them to live in, whether it is a guest room in an adult child’s household; or a relationship abandoned and never properly reckoned with; or an absence of physical love; or a marriage that has become stifling; or, in Sonny’s case, a life plan not his own, devoid of his personal dreams and the girl he loves. The young and old alike must launch out into the deep to find a life that suits them. The irony is, of course, that by going on the quest, each becomes a better, bigger person.
India is a colorful backdrop for these stories of transformation, though it could have been more, almost a vivid character in the story. India has “in your face” ways and stark contrasts. But as portrayed here it is too benign, too Disney, to be the real thing. Dangers lurk in Jaipur for any tourist, especially a woman alone, or any enormous city where poverty and hunger stalk the same streets as high-tech enterprises and youth with iPhones and motorcycles (but no helmets). But that is a small defect in what is a delightful, engaging dish.