As the all-star team of British thespians entering their twilight years disembark from their plane in India at the beginning of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the particularly closed-minded Jean (Penelope Wilton) claims to know a little something about the native culture from reading Rudyard Kipling. Of course, she is referring to “The Jungle Book” and other works that famed British author Kipling wrote about his country of birth.
However, if there was one thing I learned from all three of my high school history classes, it was that Kipling appears in textbooks for something else he wrote. It’s a little ditty called “The White Man’s Burden,” and the first verse goes like this:
Take up the White Man’s burden-
Send forth the best ye breed-
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need…
Kipling’s poem was written to encourage the United States to join Britain in its endeavor to colonize the uncivilized East at a time when it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because their holdings were so vast and widespread. While I doubt this poem crossed the minds of director John Madden or the rest of the cast, I found it beautifully ironic. “The White Man’s Burden” would explain the troublesome undercurrent of neo-colonialism that runs throughout the movie, just as it can persuade them into thinking their adventurous escapade to India is just and noble.
The sincere need to leave England is never in question for me. Recently widowed Evelyn (Judi Dench), fatigued judge Graham (Tom Wilkinson), casual racist Minerva McGonagall – I mean, Muriel (Maggie Smith), swinger Norman (Ronald Pickup), husband-hunting Madge (Celia Imrie), and broke and bummed-out couple Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Wilton) are all in need of a life-change. A hotel for seniors in India sure sounds like a haven.
But when they arrive and see it in shoddy repair and under completely inept management, that’s when anyone in their right mind would bolt for Palm Beach. It turns out Muriel needs to stay for a hip replacement, and Graham is there partially to look for a lost childhood love; however, no one else has an excuse. Except, of course, neo-colonialism. The white man’s burden.
Think allegorically for a second. Dench’s Evelyn winds up staying mainly because she finds a job at a telemarketing center in Jaipur as – get this – a cultural consultant. She imparts to them her incredible wisdom from both her country and her seniority. The rationale of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is that such an arrangement is mutually beneficial: Evelyn feels satisfied helping other people and the Indians learn something from her. However, I just found that to be a preposterous front for a colonial mindset in which the native people need the advice of the much more advanced to prosper. Evelyn in her golden years represents the Old World while these eager, upstart telemarketers represent the new, emerging country of India.
If the representation of India was just those telemarketers, it wouldn’t be all that problematic. But that isn’t it – the movie turns Dev Patel, a dramatic actor as evinced in “Slumdog Millionaire,” into what is essentially a modern day minstrel show. He flaunts a ridiculous accent, makes constant pratfalls, and has about as many neuroses as a Woody Allen character (but is trapped in the body of an Adam Sandler character). It’s a humiliating and degrading role to give such a talented performer.
Patel’s Sunny is doomed to fulfill a modern-day, gender-reversed Indian “Fiddler on the Roof” in which he is the third child forced to convince a traditional parent to accept an unconventional marriage. Meanwhile, also at the hotel, the Brits are living it up, enjoying rich character development, and driving an entertaining narrative for the crowd.
So please, John Madden and the rest of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” please don’t throw an untouchable character into the mix to convince us that you really care about India. Because from what I observed, you would have been content to just tell a British story against an Indian backdrop. That makes for a nice day at the cinema (and you may be fooled by my harsh analysis, but I did enjoy this), yet there’s also the matter of the setting that must be addressed. Apparently, that was just a huge burden, so banalities and clichés were sufficient to cover them. B- /
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel DVD is available to buy from Tesco Entertainment here among other online retailers.