Even as our political system is radically redistributing wealth from the young to the old, our popular culture remains radically youth-oriented. Our society’s obsession with youth and beauty together with the fact that young people probably spend more money on movies may make our current epidemic of silly action movies and the like almost inevitable. It is all that much more refreshing, therefore, to experience a film featuring predominantly older actors portraying a period in life and its challenges that most senior citizens can well relate to.
That movie, of course, is the recently released film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (based on Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things). The ensemble cast includes such stars as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Tom Wilkinson, among others, part of an oddly assorted group of British seniors, several in economically challenged circumstances, who have (somewhat improbably) settled in a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. Operated by a young and dynamic, but impractical entrepreneur, the dilapidated old hotel is a vivid metaphor for the circumstances in which these expatriates find themselves.
The film follows the predictable plot-line of strangers getting to know each other as they struggle to adapt to alien (and somewhat difficult) surroundings, rediscovering strengths in themselves and new motivation to carry on (complete with predictable romantic entanglements). In the process, one will die happy (having reconnected with a native Indian lover from 40 years back), one will leave her husband and return home, and the others will all remain in India, their renewed lives reflected in the renewed condition of the hotel.
The predictability of the plot in no way detracts from the beauty of the story. The movie visually assaults the viewer (and, a fortiori, the characters) with the bright light and color and chaos of India – effectively symbolizing the experiential assault on the defeated, beaten down people they had become and opening a brighter path, made possible precisely by the chaos of their situation. The movie imparts a new meaning to the hackneyed expression one’s “golden” years!
The full title of the hotel is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. Assuming what that title says grammatically is what was really intended (the Elderly and Beautiful – not the Elderly and the Beautiful), the film invites its aging characters (and through them their audience to engage in the counter-cultural thought experiment that being beautiful is not an alternative to being elderly but can coexist with it.