The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Reviewed by Alena Amato Ruggerio

L-R: Judi Dench and Celia Imrie in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
L-R: Judi Dench and Celia Imrie in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

With their sheer numbers and unprecedented consumerism, Baby Boomers are a coveted marketing segment. As they move into retirement, an entire industry has arisen to assure the Boomer generation that they’re still vigorous as their bodies change, and affluent despite their financial losses in the recession. Witness television commercials such as those for the film Hope Springs, erectile dysfunction drugs Cialis and Viagra, and Ameriprise Financial’s investments, sold with the theme “Your Dreams Don’t Retire.”

Please read sincerity rather than derision in my tone. My dearest friends in EEWC-Christian Feminism Today have provided me with role models for growing older with fitness and ferocity, something I can only hope I live long enough to achieve. Now that it’s lucrative to do so, we can finally start having a discussion in pop culture about aging and ageism. Let’s start with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011, directed by John Madden and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures), which was recently released on DVD.

The film tells the story of seven white strangers who move from England to India, lured by the promise of living their senior years in luxury at the Marigold Hotel in Jaipur.

They each go for their own reasons: Evelyn (Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench) is newly widowed after a marriage characterized by dependence. Retired high court judge Graham (Emmy winner Tom Wilkinson) returns to India hoping to lay down the burden of guilt he’s been carrying for forty years. Married couple Douglas (Golden Globe winner Bill Nighy) and Jean (Officer of the Order of the British Empire Penelope Wilton) are forced to stretch their pensions with the favorable exchange rate after losing their retirement savings to a bad investment. Muriel (two time Oscar winner Dame Maggie Smith) comes to India as a medical tourist, enduring and recovering from a surgery she would’ve had to wait six months to receive in a British hospital. Norman (prolific stage actor Ronald Pickup) wants to chase the sexual vitality of his youth among a new population of women. And Madge (Celia Imrie, most recognizable to American audiences from Bridget Jones’ Diary and its sequel The Edge of Reason) is the free spirit in search of a rich Maharaja husband.

When they arrive in Jaipur, they realize the advertisements have seriously misled them about the ramshackle, nearly bankrupt Marigold Hotel, where the walls are crumbling, the phones don’t work, and some of the bedrooms don’t even have doors. Of course, India itself becomes a character in the film, as the Brits struggle with their culture shock, finding the poverty and pace of the streets of Jaipur an overwhelming “assault on the senses,” and adjusting to Indian cooking that they sometimes find an assault on the belly.

L-R: Tena Desae and Dev Patel in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
L-R: Tena Desae and Dev Patel in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

The new friends meet the hotel manager, young Sunil “Sonny” Kapoor (super cutie Dev Patel, known for Slumdog Millionaire) who is fighting for his innkeeper dream against his mother and older brothers who want to raze the building.

Each character goes on a journey to negotiate her or his expatriate identity. Evelyn becomes a woman who stands on her own two feet and has much to offer back to the country she has embraced. Graham finds what he was searching for to heal his past. Douglas and Jean discover a new chapter in their marriage. Muriel tones down her racism
when she’s able to connect it to her own experience of being the target of age and class prejudice. Norman’s loneliness ends the moment he stops acting like a sleaze. Madge swaps her gold digging for genuine introspection.

Eventually, most of them come to peace with their new lives in India, savoring what Graham describes as the joy of the light, the colors, the smiles, and the way the people of India view life as a privilege rather than an entitlement.

Sonny has his own narrative arc, as he manages the tension between his traditional mother’s pressure for an arranged marriage, and his modern aspirations to marry his girlfriend Sunaina Palawar (Bollywood actress Tena Desae).

Out of Sonny’s mouth come two major themes of the film: Western ageism (as he explains his business plan for the hotel to his skeptical mother, “I have a dream, Mummyji. A most brilliant one: to outsource old age. And it’s not just the British. There are many other countries where they don’t like old people too.”) and hope (“Everything will be all right in the end; so if it’s not right, it’s not the end.”). Helping his Marigold Hotel guests adapt to the unpredictable circumstances of India, Sonny serves as the heart of a pleasant, well-acted film.

Copyright 2012 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, Vol. 36, Nos. 3 (Fall, 2012).

Alena Amato Ruggerio
Alena Amato Ruggerio, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, Media, and Cinema at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. She is a longtime member of SOU’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Council, including serving as the Interim Coordinator of Women's Studies for one year. She also served for eleven years on the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Council, and has delivered plenary addresses and workshops at several CFT conferences. Dr. Ruggerio is the editor of Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers (Lexington Books), and the coauthor of Feminism in Practice: Communication Strategies for Making Change (Waveland Press). She lives in the southwestern corner of Oregon with her husband Bradley and their astonishingly adorable cats.