The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Tries To Acknowledge The Racism Of Brits In India
By Alex Cranz
Waaaay back in February Sociological Images pointed out the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and they were not too pleased as it appeared to be one of the “magical non-white person saves the white person’s soul” films. You know the ones. It usually stars Morgan Freeman and his only character arc is that he made some white guy feel better. At the time I’d just received passes to see the film and was extremely nervous about what I was going to be seeing, and also disappointed to see some of my favorite actresses in what was ostensibly a hella racist film.
And yes, there does seem to be an undercurrent of “hipster” racism in the film. That sort of racism that is painfully aware. Where it acknowledges what it’s doing isn’t especially cool but does it any ways. But, funnily enough, it also tries desperately to NOT be racist. To not perpetuate the idea of magical exoticism that often treats India more as a mystical place to fix foreigners rather than an actual place populated by real people.
It doesn’t always accomplish that but that is more a hindrance of the plot than of the filmmakers. It’s based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach and adapted by Ol Parker, the guy behind my favorite romantic comedy of the last ten years (Imagine Me and You). In her book, and in the film, a group of white Brits in their twilight years opt to save money by retiring to a resort in India. They’re promised gorgeous vistas and a magical wonderland and servants who wait on them hand and foot while speaking in soft and lilting tones.
When they actually arrive they find the hotel to be dilapidated with only a few staff members and everything is run by an optimistic twenty something with no head for business but a dream to create a vibrant retirement community for the wealthier Brits. Dev Patel and his storyline often save the film from being mired in British babyboomer navel gazing. He’s young and earnest, and just as the Brits are trying to prove that they haven’t made a terrible choice moving to India (their myriad of friends and children feel otherwise) he is trying to prove that what’s he’s doing is economically viable.
But most people aren’t coming into this film to see Dev Patel rock an Indian accent and prove his worth to his mother. They’re here for Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson. And those five are very good even if their stories feel wrung out of an episode of Waiting For God. With the exception of Wilkinson’s character these are all people who find themselves in India out of necessity. They can no longer afford to live comfortably in the UK. They’re part of a new breed of financial tourists who seek adventures abroad not for the experience but because it is the only way they can continue to live comfortably within their means.
But as they experience “the magic” of India they each have their sociological bell rung. They are forced to realize that to live in a new place means accepting it and integrating, not asking it to change for you. Each struggles in their own right. Some because they’re extremely racist and some because they’re middle class Western suburbanites accustomed to having everything bend to their will.
The movie excels at forcing these characters to give up their privilege–though it does take a healthy dose of movie magic to do it. By the end of the film characters have made their choices and some have died, and some have returned to England with their tails between their legs but they’ve all been humbled a bit and there’s that rosy feel good sensibility that is often absent in the real world. It doesn’t fix the core problem of the film, the exocitizing of India, but it does actively work to acknowledge it.
But for many people that may not be enough.
- More than one scene in the film is stolen by Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, as a pair of randy Brits out to find rich new spouses in India. Imrie previously worked with screenwriter, Ol Parker, on Imagine Me and You and continues to be incredibly charming.
- I really need to know if Smith and Wilton ever pretended to be their Downton Abbey characters on set. Someone find out for me.
- Surprise! One of the characters is queer. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which. It leads to one of the film’s most excruciating moments…but in a good way.
- Penelope Wilton is fast becoming a treasure. She plays a very angry and often unlikable woman in this film and I still wanted to hug all her troubles away 90% of the time.
- We’re really getting to a point in film where simply acknowledging the problematic aspects of a film isn’t enough. Filmmakers need to work at actually removing those problems instead. Though I don’t know if it could have saved this film from its hipster racism, I think that is just inherent to the story.
- And that’s a shame because there’s actually a really great story about baby boomers trying to comprehend their twilight years that is great. Judi Dench and Wilton in particular have a wonderful time wrestling with what they’re to do now that they’re “old.” I just wish it wasn’t wrapped up in all the problems.