by director John Madden
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is adapted from a book by Deborah Moggach which has an interesting concept at its core: outsourcing retirement. It tells the story of a group of British people at that point in their lives when people stop taking much notice of them, when things break down and funds dry up, when opportunities disappear and partners die. Each of them becomes aware of an enticing, if wildly improbable, alternative: to start again in India, retiring to a hotel which promises peace and calm and faded grandeur at an affordable price.
I was attracted to this idea as a means of exploring a kind of forbidden territory in cinema—old age and mortality—in a way that pre-empted earnestness. The cultural collision seemed rich in comic possibility, and mandated a narrative which was entirely present tense. These characters were literally leaving their past behind, and committing themselves to an unknown future; making everything up as they go along, which in their circumstances struck me as a sort of heroism.
There are certain kinds of stories where the experience of the characters is matched and reflected by the experience of the audience witnessing them—in this case the sense of being transported to an unfamiliar world. The narrative model is of course Shakespearean: for India, read Illyria or the Forest of Arden, a magic realm of inversions, where the normal rules are suspended, where a kind of intoxication falls on the characters, and they start to behave in unexpected ways. The mature comedies of Shakespeare revel in a mixed tone, careering from outright farce to romantic adventure, with mortality—or the threat of it—never far away. I would not dream of making such lofty comparisons for this film, but the idea of substituting for the young lovers of Twelfth Night and As You Like It the group of pensioners at the centre of this story was irresistible. Watching old people suddenly behaving like young people becomes hilarious as well as instructive.
And cinematically, there was the equally irresistible lure of India, an enticement and a challenge to any filmmaker: a place of stunning visual splendor, teeming with extraordinary detail and contradiction. For these characters, a place at once intensely foreign, yet completely welcoming, with surprising parallels to the culture they come from.
But mainly I wanted to direct our gaze at a subject from which we all too readily avert it. Nobody likes to contemplate this part of our lives, the one that awaits us all, and I wondered whether it was possible to rehabilitate the notion of age as something to celebrate and to embrace, and certainly to laugh at, instead of something we must run away from. The full title of the film was to have been the same as the name of the hotel at its centre: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. I conceded that this might have been a word or two too far in a title already notable for its length, but I still like those words a lot, and relish seeing them in one another's company.