“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”
Q&A by Roger Durling with Director John Madden and Actress Tena Desae
Roger Durling: John I’ll start with you. I was telling you outside, it’s so refreshing to find a movie that’s a love story about people that have such a long experience. Normally, we are used to seeing first love in movies. Is this one of the things that attracted you to the project?
John Madden: Yes, absolutely. You managed very cunningly not to use the word old or elderly in that formulation. It’s a word we’re not supposed to use anywhere, because it’s something we are not supposed to want to be. I think it’s a topic worth lifting the lid on. I speak from that constituency rather than from outside of the constituency. The idea of the film was appealing on a bunch of levels. Partly because it allowed you to look at that subject and look at that experience with humor because it’s an absurd situation – these people being thrown at this extraordinary culture.
The film is partly about old people behaving like teenagers, you know. That is unless you all still smoke apple tobacco here in Santa Barbara. Yeah I’m being a little facetious about it but I don’t mean to be facetious because it’s not a facetious film. It appeared to me enormously that you could tell a story about people at this point or at the point where people stop paying attention to them or put them in a ghetto in some way. But actually of course their life is every bit as vivid full of desires, disappointments, rivalries and all kinds of things that don’t stop just because you get past the age of sixty.
Durling: Of course we all have loved your past films. You had an incredible ensemble in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and now another incredible ensemble in this film. Is this something you enjoy – creating a complicated narrative around these ensembles?
Madden: I do enjoy that. You know there is a kind of entropy that starts to happen when you’ve got a narrative challenge, when you’ve got to weave a lot of stories together and balance them. I particularly like films that have a mixed tone. I like films that are veering between a more emotional terrain and something the rug can be pulled out from underneath. Both the films you mentioned have that quality, but also, on the ensemble front it’s incredible. That’s a pretty amazing bunch of actors at the center of the story, but then to bring them together with someone like Tena, whose first English language film it is, and Dev Patel, who’s incredible talented young guy at the very beginning of his life. That’s also immensely appealing.
Durling: Tena, he mentioned the fact that this is your first English language film. Here you are with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy – all these greats of film, with John Madden directing. What was this like for you?
Tena Desae: The entire thing is just the biggest blessing of my life. When I was auditioning for the film and I saw the bulletin board in the office with the pictures of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel, I got very excited because I’m such a huge HARRY POTTER fan, JAMES BOND fan and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN fan. Then I found out John was directing, I was like “Oh my god I’m going to meet him.” He is so relaxed. He doesn’t behave like he’s a big director, which is so awesome.
I think the most important thing was for me to deal with my dad and mom, because they were very particular that I take photographs and get autographs. I haven’t got my autograph from John yet. He’s always like, “Hmmm later we have already worked together.” That’s something I’m still working on. It’s a joyride for me to be actually in the presence of these guys.
Durling: So Sweet! Now John, you could have easily made this post card movie about India and have just beautiful locations, but instead there’s grittiness. It is a very sensuous movie in that regard because you could feel the dust, you could feel the color, and you could feel the smells.
Madden: Believe me; you couldn’t quite feel the smells.
Durling: [Laughs] At least imagine. You know what I mean?
Madden: I do, maybe the question that you’re asking. I guess it already has a concept of India, and the visual concept of India that the people tend to receive – because it’s the one that is promoted by tourist boards and so forth – is an image of infinity, serenity, peace, calm, spirituality. And all of those things are true, but this is also true and slightly more true of common experience, a certain city experience. It’s something of a truism to say the term “culture shock” could literally been coined to describe the experience of going to India because it’s from a Western perspective. It’s completely overwhelming, startling, shocking and an ‘assort on the senses’ is the phrase that we used to describe it in the film, and that’s exactly what it is.
I found that after recovering from the shock in a couple of days, I started to become incredibly energized by it because it’s visually a startling place. Incredible. Like a kind of story in almost every frame you look at. Life is lived outside of courses most of the time so that makes the experience of being around people quite different than you feel anywhere else. It’s chaotic, it’s completely chaotic, but of course they learn to live with chaos, and they move through the chaos without worrying about it. You know, health and safety issues being applied to India is just a joke. It’s a joke. You take your life into your hands when you go on the roads there without question, and that’s depicted in the film.
We used to have a point system, all of us in the country, about spotting the motorcycle with the most number of people on it. I’m not kidding you; you see entire families including mothers-in-law, babies and children on one bike with not a crash helmet in sight. You know it would be one thing, but you’re seeing 400 of these on a small road weaving in and out of each other. I saw two bikes with a ladder in between the two bikes going around a roundabout and I just thought, “That was a fifteen pointer in our book.” I’m just saying that to illustrate the situation.
But I wanted to paint the country as these people would have seen it and would have experienced it. They are not there as tourists. They’re there with no money. They’re staying in a place that they thought was going to be one thing and turns out to be something completely different. They have to go out there and engage with that world, get themselves a job, or mend a tap or whatever it may be. So I wanted as far as possible to get into the midst of that and film it the way it was. But it still feels a very attractive place and I hope it does because it’s an amazing place.
Durling: You speak about a journey as a director in India. Had most of the cast, crew and yourself been in India before and experienced it?
Madden: I have to be completely honest and say no. There were only two people in our group who had been there, which was Celia Imrie and Maggie Smith. Celia had done a gap year thing at some point in her life and Maggie had been there once to see her son filming. I had never been there but had a date to take my wife on a significant anniversary which is this year. But I got there two years early as it turned out. So, we were all very much in the same situation and there was a sort of spectrum of reactions to the place, not unlike some of the ones in the film. Not quite as extreme.
Desae: I was told John acted like Penelope Wilton’s character.
Madden: [Laughs] No! Penelope Wilton’s character’s reaction to the place is not an uncommon reaction, nor is it a completely unjustified reaction for a moment in my view, but hopefully not longer than that. But of course she has other reasons for resisting everything that’s going on around her because she painted herself into a corner.
Durling: Yeah, one of my questions later on was going to be about Penelope Wilton. To me she had one of the most challenging characters because all the characters, including Tena’s, are opening up to this world, maturing, learning and going through this enlightening process. It’s so entreating to watch Penelope’s character because she is going inwards and shutting down.
Madden: Yes, it’s invidious of me to select anybody in this ensemble because obviously my heart is with all of them and they are all amazing performers. But, that marriage is the spine of the story because obviously they are all transformed by the place they’re in, by the experience they’re having. But, that couple transformed in a way that’s slightly counterintuitive but terribly important, which makes them realize this marriage they’re in was over long ago, she said. It’s quite a difficult idea to convey because it seems a negative idea. On the contrary, I think it’s a very positive idea and she has to go through a sort of desperate humiliation in order to see quite how far away she has got.
There is a very strong line in the film that Bill Nighy says to her, “Have you any idea of what a terrible person you have become?” It’s a pretty shocking sentiment there, and whenever I hear it I always turn it back on myself to try and think of what I have lost touch with, what I’m not thinking about. You need a partner to tell you that generally speaking. I think she is particularly an extraordinary actress because she takes a character that is gratingly negative but somehow makes you understand what’s going on in her soul, and it’s not a pretty sight. She realizes that finally and has a redemptive moment where she realizes that she’s got to push him away and release him somehow, because he will never release her because he is too decent and forgiving, like she says, and that actually made her into a monster. It’s kind of an odd idea to put at the center of the thing because normally you would let it develop over time. But, it is one of the things I’m most happy with, because that’s a lesson to learn as well. It’s not over until it’s over. That’s very important to me. I think she is an extraordinary actress and she balances comedy and tragedy in the same moment.
Durling: Was it a coincidence that we have the two DOWNTON ABBEY ladies, Maggie Smith and Penelope together in the movie?
Madden: It wasn’t intentional because that series was just beginning when we shot the film. I missed the first season because we were in India. We were getting word that it was become something of a phenomenon. Everybody in this film saving this girl on my left here (Desae) has worked with everybody else more than once. I’ve heard Bill saying that he has been married to Penelope Wilton twice before and has also been her doctor. It’s something about a group of actors that come up through the same system. They have all done theater, they’ve done radio, they’ve done television and they’ve done films. They weave in and out of each other’s lives so there’s a tremendous level of trust and understanding there.
Durling: Tena, how did you feel about this foreigner sitting next to you portraying your India on the screen?
Desae: When I read the script, I haven’t read the book, when I read the script I thought who ever has written it has definitely spent a significant amount of time in India because everything’s really as is. Nothing’s dramatized. So, you know the oncoming lorry when they’re all going in the bus, is so true. I was like, “How do they know that we don’t react to that, while they’re freaking out.” The Indian girl is modern, she is independent, but she’s still Indian and respects her elders. Everything is exactly as is. I was finally happy that whenever it does come out in India the people will not resist it because nothing is stereotypical.
Durling: John, going back to the ensemble, how did you assemble all of them? Of course you worked with Judi Dench in MRS. BROWN, and she won the Academy Award with you directing her in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. How did you go about getting all of them together?
Madden: Well, the simple answer is that I sent them the script. I would guess that it’s a very attractive thing to do. All of the characters have a very unusual journey and the film is incredibly present tense. That’s something I was very concerned that it should be. Again, it is all slightly unusual, counterintuitive to use that word again, to have a film about old people that isn’t about their past. It’s actually about now and what’s happening to them now. This is one of the reasons you can shed the assumptions of what being old is. I mean older. Older is a much more reasonable term, isn’t it? Although elderly is the term I really like. I think the idea of actors being in a film where they weren’t the center of it and they were sharing it was an attractive thing. I have relationships with a lot of them working with some on other films and some on stage, and I think that the other huge thing right in the center of it is India. It’s just a very interesting and enticing prospect. I don’t think they knew quite what they were getting into with that because they were all there for the run of the picture all the way through the film.
Durling: How long was the run of the film?
Madden: It was about eight weeks in India and about nearly ten days and two weeks in London.
Durling: So, the ensemble stayed the entire time?
Madden: Yeah they were there the whole time, living in a hotel. I think we are very blessed in the UK. I know a lot of American actors because I worked here a large part of my life in theater. In the UK we have a kind of body of actors, that I suppose are really amazing character actors, who were sort of swirling around this project in a kind of constellation because I was involved at the very beginning, but I was making another film. So I said to Gram the producer “You must go and make this because you can’t wait for me to make it”. So he went off and did try to make it with another, possibly even two directors, and during that time various other actors moved into the atmosphere of the piece, circled it for awhile and then moved out, or the configurations didn’t come together.
When I finished this other film I came back into it. That’s when the whole cast kind of came together. I think it’s an attractive project, for the same reasons we are talking about. It’s about the experience of somebody that age. Though I guess if you asked them, I’m sure they would say that is the reason. They probably, like all of us, don’t think of themselves as being that age.
Durling: Speaking of the hotel, how difficult was it to find? It becomes almost another character in the film. Also that incredible bazaar that’s right out there on the street, how did you find this location?
Madden: Well the bazaar, I hate to be a spoiler here, that’s us. It wasn’t there. I’ll tell you what it actually looks like. When you see the sequence at the beginning and they are all looking at the web site, the hotel you see there is what the hotel actually looks like. It’s in the middle of the dessert. It’s not in the outskirts of Jaipur at all. It’s a former tribal chieftain’s palace and it’s really in a little village called Khempur, which is about an hour and a half outside of Udaipur. We would have to make that lethal journey every day, and also at night when most of the vehicles don’t have lights that work.
We looked for a long time, and I was planning on putting together two different places because it was a difficult brief to meet. Then I found this one and the producers were just horrified that I was even considering it because it was three hours travel in the day, which is a lot. But in the end there couldn’t really be any argument about it, because it had exactly the qualities you need. It’s very down at hill, monsoon stains and rain stains all over the walls. It’s completely balmy really. It’s a very odd slightly mad place. The reason it is like that is because of what it was. It’s a defensive building to keep marauding tribes away. It’s ridiculously kind of grandiose in the middle of the desert. I don’t know who they were impressing. But of course it was designed to reflect the man’s status and how important he thought he was. So, all these things feed into the self image of the building, or at least Sonny’s image of the building. It was sort of like an amphitheater, much like the one SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.
Durling: So, the bazaar wasn’t there?
Madden: No, we built that. There was a sort of track outside and we tarmaced that and then made the rest of it.
Durling: John and Tena, Congratulations on the film and thank you both for being here.
Madden: Thank you!