This being a British middle-class attempt at a comedy-drama, you can round up the usual suspects … Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie (what happened to Richard Briers and Maria Aitken? Were they tied up in pantomime in Leatherhead?) To be a successful TV and film actor in England, you must (a) speak with a cut-glass accent and (b) have been born before World War Two. The script is derived from a novel (aren't they all?) and so it has to be given an injection of life – the slow, contemplative pace of a prose work doesn't translate well to the big screen. This is done by tagging-on a bunch of one-line gags. Screen writer Ol Parker has done his best, but Bob Hope this isn't. India is "the Costa Brava … but with more elephants", and we even get that old chestnut, "If she dies, she dies!"
No-one, it seems, can make a film about India without descending into the most irritating of clichés (ever seen "City of Joy"?) The much-lauded "Slumdog Millionaire" was a major offender in this respect, and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" fares no better. One imagines that this project was chosen for three reasons: first, there was a novel already in being (most film-makers can't or won't trust their own judgment, and always resort to the crutch of a pre-existing work to base their movie on), second, with a cast of seven geriatrics, it was perfect for Britain's talent pool of actors and third, India looms large in the British consciousness. If the threadbare Empire thing is finally receding, there are many educated British people who have backpacked their way around Goa and Uttar Pradesh in their student days, and are also vaguely aware of India as an "emerging economy", so there might be money to be made from an Anglo-Indian film. So why the stereotypes? To say this film's understanding of India is skin-deep is not being very complimentary … towards skin.
India in 2012 is a burgeoning modern state, with its own nuclear weapons and its own space program. In a population of 1.2 billion, there are quite a few switched-on individuals who know about stuff. But in Western films, we stubbornly insist on patronizing this vast and vibrant culture. You know the sort of thing. Get to India and you can't trust the water, can't trust the food, can't trust the drivers. Sonny (Dev Patel) is the young dreamer whose ramshackle hotel forms the setting of the story, and guess what – he is delightful, charming, unrealistic and not entirely honest. In other words, he is a child. Adorable, but a child.
And there's the rub. Like "City of Joy" and "Slumdog Millionaire", this film feeds into the assumption that Indians are inferior. They don't have our standards. Efficiency, propriety, hygiene – these are Western characteristics. You enter the maelstrom when you set out on an Indian road, because – bless them – they are suicidal maniacs when they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. And they eat funny food.
What becomes of our Surbiton Seven after they've exchanged Cheam for Chandigarh? Well, it's all fairly predictable. They go through a phase of disillusionment, then they learn to love the Indians, and it all gets nice and heart-warming. Evelyn, Judi Dench's character, starts working in a call center and Muriel (Maggie Smith) takes a look at the hotel books. Before you can say "poppadum", the call center is a raging success, because Evelyn shows the operators how to interact with callers. The hotel is turned around, because now somebody with skill is controlling the finances. You see? That's all India needed – for two elderly women to show up and tell the locals what to do. Never mind that Muriel is a dyed-in-the-wool racist and Evelyn has never actually had a job of any kind in her life.
As for Norman (Ronald Pickup), he is the Reigate Romeo who can't accept the aging process and the loss of sexual potency. Know what happens? He meets an English woman who's lived all her life in India, and they fall in love. The Subcontinent has worked its magic again. The only thing is, why couldn't he fall in love with an Indian woman?
In the final analysis, the film doesn't work because these people are not touched by India. They go there, but they remain, psychologically, in Wimbledon. India is a success only in so far as it submits to Western ways of doing things. Sunny decides he's going to marry Sunaina (Tena Desae), even though she's from an inferior caste, because he wants to – and love conquers all, doesn't it? Never mind that they are both Hindus, living in an ancient Hindu civilization, with its time-honored ways of doing things. The Western quick fix is the way to go. How nice for us, to be able to breathe in India's aromas, glory in its colors, solve all its problems within hours of arriving … and still remain stranded, psychologically, in Surrey.