Production Notes – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

Exotic Marigold Hotel
Their adventures began in the mind of British novelist Deborah Moggach, who imagined a group of cash-strapped pensioners who find themselves “outsourced” to India, each willing (or forced) to try relocating to an exotic locale at a fraction of the usual retirement price. The book won praise for its characters that, at an age when most people are slowing down and staying close to home, embark on the journey of a lifetime.

Producers Graham Broadbent and Peter Czernin saw the potential for an unusual and original film experience. “We loved her concept of outsourcing retirement, taking our outsourcing of everyday tasks like banking and customer service one step further,” says Broadbent. “Deborah had pondered where she would like to end up in her golden years, and decided living above an Indian bazaar would be endlessly fascinating. The wonderful part is that just when her characters could be entering a greyer period of their lives, a whole new chapter opens up, with a literal explosion of color and brightness, and an opportunity to reinvent themselves.”

Screenwriter Ol Parker took that scenario and ran with it. “I saw an opportunity to create a romantic comedy for a different generation, centered on people in their 60s and 70s,” says Parker, who last wrote and directed the twenty-something romantic comedy IMAGINE ME & YOU. “What was so appealing to me is that as we get older, we tend to not stray out of our comfort zones, I loved the idea of taking this group of people and putting them somewhere where they are completely out of their element. I also enjoyed the idea of a love story about men and women who have had a whole lifetime of experience.”

To direct the film, Broadbent and Czernin approached John Madden, one of England’s most lauded, cinematic storytellers, whose films include the Best Picture Oscar® winner SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and the recent thriller THE DEBT. Madden found the premise irresistible: seven people – stranded for different reasons at the point in their lives where opportunities have disappeared – dropped into a strange, intoxicating and threatening new world. It offered the comedy of displacement alongside the melancholy of loss – and the tribulations and joys of trying to grow older with grace and vitality.

“The script is funny and rich, and it’s not just a comedy,” notes Madden. “It also deals with bereavement, loneliness and isolation, and confronts the question of what is really possible as you get older. Can you still start over again? Is it ever too late to change?”

The answer for those at the Marigold Hotel might seem uncertain, but it becomes a resounding “No” for most of the characters, although in very individual and unique ways.

Madden was excited from the start to pull together an ensemble cast who could bring each of these journeys alive in vivid and human ways. “A lot of my work has been with ensembles, and I’m interested by stories of people in suspension, where different rules apply, where only the present tense matters.” he says. “In SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, the characters were suspended in the enchanted universe of the theatre, and of the play; in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL the characters are in an analogous kind of geographical suspension. They’ve entered a strange world removed from their former reality, cut off from their past, where they have to invent a new life for themselves.”

The fact that the characters are in the latter part of life turned out to be a real advantage.

“Since the characters are all of a certain age, it was a chance to cast actors who are at the peak of their abilities,” explains Madden. “They were the most extraordinary resource and they brought the story alive. The sheer level of comic talent, acting skill and depth of experience was staggering. The only thing we had to do was bring them together with an equally skilled ensemble of Indian actors, and then watch them collide with this magnificent country.”

“In this story, definitions of age and maturity completely fall away,” sums up Madden, “because the characters are made young again by the situations they find themselves in. Challenged and overwhelmed by the experience of modern India, caught in different forms of emotional realignment – friendships, liaisons, rivalries – as well as in unfinished business that sparks in comic eruptions – they find that ultimately the only thing that matters is what is happening right then and there, between them.”

The Residents
At THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, everything centers around the needs and wishes of the residents — which turn out be astonishingly tricky and diverse. They include:

Evelyn/Judi Dench
Marital Status: Newly widowed
Financial Status: Inherited her husband’s mounds of hidden debt
Looking for: A job (and her first real taste of independence)

Evelyn thought she had a perfect marriage, but when her husband suddenly dies, leaving her with his secret life of financial ruin, she starts to question everything about her past and, more importantly, her now uncertain future. Desperate to find a way out of her son’s offer to move in with his family, she resolves to teach herself computer skills, and stumbles on the website of the Marigold Hotel. She knows that India will be nothing like her life in London, but as daunting as it seems, it offers her hope, and she consoles her incredulous son with the promise of a regular blog.

Playing Evelyn is Dame Judi Dench, the Academy Award® winning leading lady who has a knack for making every character she plays both real and transcendent. Dench previously worked with Madden on MRS. BROWN and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, garnering as Oscar nomination for the first and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the latter.

“In this film, Judi plays a woman who is forced to take control of her future when she has never done so in her entire life,” notes Madden.

“She is really the heart of the story,” adds Graham Broadbent. “And like Judi, Evelyn is the most wonderfully sympathetic person.”

Dench says of Evelyn’s journey: “I think she feels she has nothing left to lose when she finds herself with no husband, no money and no real plan for the future, so she comes to India and then fully embraces it. That was not hard to act, because I found that being in India you are drawn each day to learning about the people and culture.”

She adds: “This is a story I really wanted to be a part of, because it is about people who don’t quite know what’s going to happen to them at this point in their lives and yet each discovers a different answer. It was also an opportunity to work with people I know — Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson and, of course, John Madden – and a chance for us to all be together for the first time.”

Muriel/Maggie Smith
Marital Status: A lifelong live-in housekeeper
Financial Status: The only thing she needs is a new hip
Looking for: The fastest way out of India

Muriel is a salty, opinionated, retired housekeeper who would have happily stayed in her own narrow little corner of the world – were it not for a pesky hip that forces her to India for surgery. She is quite convinced she will find the whole experience appalling until India slowly starts to unseat her assumptions. One of the world’s most famed and distinguished actresses, multiple Academy Award winner Maggie Smith, takes on the crucial role of the woman who becomes the hotel’s unlikeliest champion.

Once he knew Smith was cast, screenwriter Ol Parker went to town with the character. “It was tremendous fun to write for Maggie, who has such a way with words, and it was also one of the great honors of my life,” he says. “Muriel has a fear of all things foreign and a hatred of going abroad, so India starts out as her worst nightmare, but that makes the way she changes more interesting.”

Continues John Madden: “Muriel is not an uncommon figure, anywhere, and certainly not in England: instinctively xenophobic, never stepping out of her comfort zone in any way. Her journey is one of the most interesting amongst the seven, as she struggles with the unfamiliar. Ironically, she forms a friendly relationship with the hotel’s lower caste Indian housekeeper, with whom of course she finds she has something in common.”

Graham Broadbent notes that it was Smith’s ability to show subtle flashes of the long-buried human compassion and curiosity underneath Muriel’s intolerance that gives the performance lightness and poignancy. “Muriel’s journey is very human and Maggie allows the audience to come to love her,” he says. “Despite her sometimes cruel and unbending attitudes, you start to see the very smart and funny woman she can be from within.”

Graham/Tom Wilkinson
Marital Status: Single and unattached
Financial Status: Well-heeled but at a cost to his joie de vivre
Looking for: A past he left behind

Graham is the only new resident at the Marigold Hotel with previous experience in India, the land where he grew up. After leading a life of conventional success and status as a High Court judge, he finds himself with just one burning thing left to do: come to terms with his early life in India, and to right a wrong which has haunted him ever since. Taking the role is Tom Wilkinson, who garnered Oscar nominations for his indelible roles in MICHAEL CLAYTON and IN THE BEDROOM.

Wilkinson says that Graham is drawn to India to make a full circle of his life. “He’s been a judge his whole adult life, and now he’s decided he’s had enough of the law and he goes to India to rediscover his past, rediscover love and most of all, rediscover who he really is,” he says. “I found it very interesting because it is a story that has to balance humor with emotion. The hard part is that it can’t become sentimental because that’s the enemy of a story like this.”

Unlike his character, Wilkinson had never been to India before and found it both exhilarating and overwhelming. “It’s a huge, variegated, complicated country with such a mixture of beauty and poverty that it is hard to take it all in,” he observes. “But I think the film gives a realistic impression of all those contrasts. For Graham, India is full of memories of youth, friendship and even now, love.”

John Madden, who has worked with Wilkinson on several previous films, says that “Tom’s character is someone who starts out no longer able to tolerate the stifling conformity of the judicial world, so he walks out of that life and returns to India, where he lived as a child. What we don’t realize at first is that he is actually on a very personal kind of search for someone he used to know, someone who holds the key to issues that he needs to resolve to find peace. He’s a very rich character who brings a very different color to the narrative.”

Adds Graham Broadbent: “Tom really responded to something in this character. Every day he brought something extraordinary, a kindness and gentleness that I don’t think people have seen in his roles before.”

Douglas/Bill Nighy
Marital Status: Married with children
Financial Status: Made the mistake of lending his retirement fund to his daughter
Looking for: Ways to appease his wife . . . and, just maybe, a change

Douglas might be a mild-mannered government official, hen-pecked husband and out-of-luck father who lent his daughter the money intended for his retirement, but in India, he finds himself shedding his repressed identity and becoming a rather different man. Taking on this comic and subtle transformation is Bill Nighy, the British actor who rose to global fame after playing an aging rocker in LOVE ACTUALLY and has gone on to roles in such blockbusters as the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.

“India gives a second chance to all of the characters,” says Nighy of his attraction to Douglas. “He had a life in England that didn’t suit

The Management
At the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the residents are attended to with a charming sense of aplomb – and panic — by the management. Despite the boasts of the hotel’s lavish brochure, this turns out to be the one-man operation of Sonny Kapoor, an endearingly ambitious youngster who nevertheless is in completely over his head.

The filmmakers knew the casting of Sonny – who comes up with the ingenious idea of “outsourcing British retirement to India” without anticipating the pitfalls – would be key to the story’s whole chemistry. After all it is only Sonny’s can-do attitude that keeps the residents from fleeing the moment they arrive!

The need for an actor with just the right blend of believable charisma and comic chops led to the casting of Dev Patel, whose starring role in the international hit SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE brought him to the attention of the world. “Dev is a spectacular talent,” says Madden. “He’s a comic natural – a sort of Jacques Tati figure, with amazing physical presence and fantastic instincts.” Adds Judi Dench: “He’s a born comedian, and he has the assurance of someone who has been doing this for a long, long time. We were all bewitched by him.”

Patel was taken with his character’s contradictions. “In a nutshell, Sonny is the most disorganized person you’ll ever meet in life, and at the same time, he is extremely eager to please,” he describes. “He photo-shopped the brochure for the Marigold Hotel to make the place look idyllic, and now, he has to try to make the guests believe that it can become all that he has promised. At the same time, he is trying to persuade his very traditional mother that he can succeed. To complicate matters even further, he is in love with a modern girl his traditionalist mother doesn’t approve of.”

What makes Sonny’s hopes for the hotel more than just delusions of grandeur is that they are based on a very real dream- to turn his father’s failure into a meaningful achievement. For Sonny, “there’s a strong emotional attachment for Sonny to the hotel because it is connected to his father, who was desperate for it to be a success, but who nevertheless failed, as he did in everything in his life,” Patel explains. “That’s why Sonny comes up with the idea of creating a place for old people that is beautiful and idyllic, even if that is not yet the reality.”

Patel also had a personal connection to the story. “My mother has actually worked as a caretaker for the elderly,” he notes, “and I was enticed by how vivid these characters are, by their sarcasm and their wisdom. I fell in love with the script because every character shines in his or her own different way and you believe in each of them.”

As for working with Dench, Smith, Wilkinson, Nighy, Wilton, Imrie and Pickup, he says: “It was phenomenal – and that’s an understatement. It was amazing for me just to watch them. I was nervous with this weighty cast, of course, but John gave me the confidence to be free. Even the smallest scenes were great lessons for me.”

Patel also enjoyed working with the many Indian actors in the production, including Lillete Dubey as Sonny’s mother, who disdains the modernization of Indian culture, and newcomer Tena Desae, as Sunaina, Sonny’s girlfriend, a typical 21st century Indian girl who works in a call center.

Dubey is a well-known screen and stage actress in India and Madden notes, “It helped that Dev was already a little afraid of her!” Dubey immediately empathized with Mrs. Kapoor’s exasperation with her son. “Mrs. Kapoor is a character I know well, because I come from Delhi originally. She is an urban, middle class mother, elegant but a bit old-fashioned, who calls the shots with her three sons. There’s both shading and a lot of humor to her,” comments Kapoor.

Desae makes her English language debut in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, revealing her comic skills as a young woman whose forbidden relationship with Sonny puts her into compromising positions. Her chemistry with Patel allowed their relationship to come alive. “When you see Dev and Tena with each other you root for them to stay together. Tena held her own against this highly experienced cast,” says Graham Broadbent.

For Desae, the experience was one of a kind. “Everyone was very approachable, very humble, very warm, very encouraging – and most of all, a lot of fun,” she confides.

The Sights
The allure of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starts with its location – in the middle of Rajasthan, one of the most romantic of India’s states, a kaleidoscopic place replete with ornate temples, ancient kingdoms and colorful saris, all alongside the dizzying pace of rapidly modernizing cities. The surroundings the residents find on arrival are certainly every bit as lush and exotic as one could imagine – but equally overwhelming and incomprehensible to life-long British residents, resulting in instant culture shock.

In the script, Ol Parker and John Madden had made the most of the natural tension that arises from transplanting people set in their ways to a place that requires a whole new way of being. But the real surprises were yet to come, as the cast and crew began to experience their own passage to India, which had a profound impact on every one of them.

E.M. Forster noted that ‘once you’ve visited India, your life is never the same,’ and for the cast this was also the case. Says Bill Nighy: “Most of us had never been to India before, and since most of our characters hadn’t either, the experience was similarly profound. The major thing you notice is the graciousness of the people and the way we were welcomed in the most wonderful way.”

Judi Dench was equally moved by the people she met, and loved the surprises of each day in India. “It’s not often in life that you can return to your digs in the evening after a day of work and find elephants walking by,” she muses.

For Celia Imrie, who had traveled through India 20 years ago, it was a reawakening. “There wasn’t anything I didn’t enjoy about every single day there,” she muses. “It is an enchanting place in every way, a country both poor and rich, with such energy, enthusiasm and joy everywhere.”

Adds Ronald Pickup: “I can only quote something Judi Dench said on our fourth or fifth day here . . . ‘India is a constant assault on your senses and on everything you’ve taken for granted.’ It’s a place full of contrasts and it does change you. It’s an experience unlike any other in the world – one that is at times thrilling, ravishing, shocking and full of every aspect of life.”

Madden collaborated with cinematographer Ben Davis, who had just shot THE DEBT with the director, to try to capture all of that energy and teeming humanity on the screen. They did not want to shoot a postcard-style India, but rather give the audience a more realistic sense of what these new arrivals might see and feel.

“There are images of India that we associate with tourist guidebooks. Those can certainly be found, but what Ben and I talked about was trying to capture the texture of Indian life the way you actually feel it,” he explains. “There is so much that strikes you when you first arrive. Everything is crumbling and dilapidated and noisy and chaotic, but there is a joyousness that comes at you, and a profound sympathy and openness. Visually it’s overwhelming: extraordinary fabrics and colors everywhere, and an incredible sense of life.”

One of the first tasks in India was to find the best, most exotic environs for the actual Marigold Hotel. “The hotel is a character itself, and it was probably the most difficult to cast,” says John Madden.

They knew that they wanted to set the hotel at the edge of the city of Jaipur – aka “The Pink City” — once home to Raj rulers but now a frenetic metropolis jammed with an ever-increasing traffic mix of cars, camels, elephants, bikes and trucks streaming down its narrow streets. “We explored different areas of India, and settled on Jaipur because the culture, the colors and the atmosphere are all so overpowering and oozing with energy, especially compared to the drab English winter our characters have left behind,” explains Graham Broadbent.

As for the hotel itself, the filmmakers ultimately chose Ravla Khempur, a royal palace turned equestrian hotel that is attached to the tiny village of Khempur just outside the scenic lake district of Udaipur. “The palace was built around a courtyard, with grand verandas from which the tribal chief’s harem could survey the world, with lots of different levels and vantage points, and a slightly mad quality… Crucially, the building had a magic about it, and an unmistakable charm,” explains Madden. “It had that something special that could ultimately draw the characters in. It had these wonderful cool dark interiors, with glimpses of saturated light and the teeming life outside its walls.”

The task of decorating the hotel with all the ambition and naiveté of Sonny Kapoor fell to production designer Alan MacDonald, whose films include Stephen Frears’ THE QUEEN and CHERI. MacDonald says Sonny was his inspiration throughout. “Once you understand Sonny, you can visualize the quirkiness and eccentricity of the hotel. His aspiration is to have a boutique hotel, but that is not his taste,” laughs the designer. “He is a living culture clash, facing his past and embracing his future, and that’s how we decorated the hotel. Lots of interesting furniture inspired by colonial India, mismatched local textiles, all mixed together with modern plastic bits and pieces, with everything distressed and weather beaten.”

The owner of Ravla Khempur, who caters mainly to Indian tourists, was so pleased with the rooms built for Madge and Evelyn on the balcony, and Norman’s eyrie on the roof, that he decided to keep the structures in place and use them for his guests.

Around the hotel, MacDonald recreated a lively, Jaipur-style market. “Outside the real building was just a dirt track, so first we laid a road, and then we built a bustling Indian market from scratch,” he explains. “My research in Jaipur showed me that everything is mixed up in India – the architecture, the colours, the textures, so I put together a living collage in layers. We built shop fronts, and went to the local town and moved shopkeepers and their wares to Khempur, adding bikes, camels, goats and cows. There is a sense of chaos and order at the same time.”

Filming also took place in the center of Jaipur, around the City Palace, the Marigold market, on the crowded city buses and in the highrise call center, from which a vast expanse of the city can be seen. On the outskirts of the city, locations included the Kanota Fort which stood in for the Viceroy Club where both Madge and Norman hope to meet new partners. When young lovers Sonny and Sunaina meet, he takes her to the Step Well, a 10th century watering spot surrounded by ten stories of pale golden stone steps, creating a visual maze in which one never ascends or descends by the same route.

The shoot quickly took on Indian rhythms, as filming navigated around some major Indian festivals and holidays that took place during production. Before shooting began, a local holy man performed a puja, a blessing on the cast, crew and even on camera equipment. Only delicate diplomacy allowed the cast to avoid playing their first scenes with red bindi marks on their foreheads without offending local traditions. Director and cast were invited by the Maharaja of Udaipur, His Royal Highness Arvind Singh Mewar, to attend his lavish Diwali celebrations, including a bagpipe welcome and a fireworks display that illuminated the surrounding lake and the whole city. They also accepted invitations to a royal wedding, replete with elephants and rock stars mingling with the high society of India on the grounds of the Rambagh Palace Hotel.

But it was on the streets of Jaipur that both cast and filmmakers received endless inspiration.