As I watched the first Indian scene in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I had an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. Here we go again: rickety old buses, exotic animals on the road, hair-raising tuk tuk rides, jarring sounds, wild colors and cheek-by-jowl crowds everywhere. From Octopussy to Eat Pray Love and now The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s always the same — the crazy spectacle of India for foreigners to imbibe.
I asked myself, why do I never find the India I grew up in or the India I call home or the India where my family still lives in these movies? I thought about an India that allows you to linger over a cup of tea, an India that sneaks up on you with a human touch when you least expect it, and an India that also exasperates you with its insistence on the people connections over a moment of quiet solitude.
In recent years, India seems to have become a popular location for Western movies, not simply as an exotic setting, but more to explore the effect India can have on Western visitors and sensibilities.
In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts’ character comes to India to find her core by exploring her spiritual self. Not unlike the flower children of the 60s and 70s, her character quickly falls into a cliché of other Western seekers who want something from India that they can’t get from their home surrounding. Neither the movie Eat Pray Love nor its heroine allows India to get under the character’s skin. There is almost no time to be swept up by the alternate universe that is India. As a result, the experience of the movie, not just for India-born Americans like me, but also even for non-Indian Americans, remained shallow and deeply dissatisfying.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel began on the same voyeuristic note as Eat Pray Love. Even the character of Dev Patel, Sonny, seemed at first, to be the stereotypical Indian seen in other movies before — jumping around to please the Western guests, bending the truth to make a buck, desperate to succeed. And then slowly and surely, the India of the human connection began to assert itself in more ways than one.
The Maggie Smith character touches the heart of the sweeping girl in spite of herself and is touched by her in return. The Judi Dench character finds a role for herself to connect with young people at a call center. The Tom Wilkinson character finds his long lost male lover at peace with himself and his wife — all transcending huge cultural divides, touched by the humanity of India because they were willing to let India enter their hearts.
India is not an easy place by any stretch of the imagination. I have never heard a visitor returning from India with a polite observation, “Oh, it was quite nice!” Most people find it an overwhelming assault on their senses, often hating parts of it and loving others. It is impossible to have a muted reaction to India. But if India gets under your skin, it will never let you go.
In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director John Madden managed to go beyond the initial assault on the senses to allow India to linger below the surface and above. The result was a satisfying movie-going experience even for a demanding Indian American like me.