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No Country for OAPs

Charlotta Salmi and Nisha Manocha

John Madden
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
24th February 2012

As you might expect of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film that features a group of white British pensioners retiring to India to live out their days in “luxury”, the plot-line, like the imagery, is full of contradictions and cultural collisions. Unfortunately these are not of the productive kind you might find in novels such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, whereby the colonial encounter shakes the foundations of the carefully contrived power imbalance that sustains empire. John Madden’s latest work is, of course, not a film about colonisation as such. It is about modern day culture clashes, and Madden’s comparison of India and Britain, if anything, weighs in favour of the former. While attempting to demonstrate the benefits of cultural exchange, however, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fails to shake off old stereotypes.

When Marigold Hotel does try to expose British prejudices about India it does so without acknowledging the oppressive imperial history behind such images or the singularity of the cultural histories upon which it treads. For example, the discomfiting scene where the retired maid Muriel (Maggie Smith) is depicted on equal footing with her untouchable cook forces the question: can we really equate the experiences of a domestic servant of a well-to-do British family with those of an untouchable woman?

The film also fails to move on from Britain’s imperial legacy in its portrayal of Jaipur. Jaipur is designated as an exotic anywhere and there is no attempt to portray local detail. Where is Jantar Mantar? Amber Fort? The pink of this “Pink City”? India is simply an alluringly exotic and conveniently English-speaking place for the British characters to play out their fantasies, find love, accept loss, stretch their pounds, and eventually die. Even age comes to be stereotyped. As if to betray this anxiety, we must be reminded incessantly that old people have feelings, too. Indeed, some even want to have sex.

Britain comes off little better in Madden’s film. In shoring up the colours of India, its smiling faces, and youth, Britain is left cold, grey, and unforgiving. Hospitals are full, retirement comes late, and children are reluctant to support their parents emotionally or financially. What is it, then, about this rehashed representation of a colourful, spiritual India and a dreary Britain that still retains its appeal? Undoubtedly the economic recession plays some part in this Western disenchantment. The ‘East’ may no longer be, as Disraeli claimed, a ‘career’, but it still retains its appeal as a dream: an ultimate utopia where, alarmingly, the West can get a second chance in life.

Charlotta Salmi is reading for a D.Phil in Postcolonial Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.
Nisha Manocha is reading for a D. Phil in English Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford.