A film about elderly Britons seeking retirement comfort in India may seem little more than a light comedy-drama. But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a serious message - one that its stellar cast is keen to share with audiences. David Gritten reports
Just occasionally, a film is released at the perfect time, capturing the public's mood and even helping to influence it. This happens only rarely, but the buzz such a film can create is remarkable: audiences flock to it based on word-of-mouth recommendations, and it becomes a phenomenon.
It happened in Britain last month with a film - financed in part by Image Nation International, a company owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National newspaper - bearing a grandiose title: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. At first glance, it's a bittersweet comedy-drama aimed squarely at people over the age of 50. This is a sector of the filmgoing audience that is generally under-served; many of them have given up on going to the cinema regularly. And unlike impulsive younger fans who rush to be among the first to see a new film, the older crowd tend to wait days, even weeks before committing - by which time it's often been yanked from release.
Not, you might think, the most promising material for a big box-office hit. But The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has confounded expectations. On its opening weekend - and many older audiences shy away from cinemas at weekends, when they're packed with teenagers and younger filmgoers - it grossed a hugely impressive £2.2 million (Dh12.9mn). Three days after it opened, it became the No. 1 one film in Britain.
Yet even more tellingly, in the days and weeks preceding its release, it had raised awareness of a social problem in Britain: the provision of care for the nation's elderly people, and the importance of treating them with dignity in residential homes. This was not an especially hot media topic until a few weeks ago; now it's a major issue.
The film tells the story of a group of British seniors who for various reasons decide to emigrate to Jaipur, India, where the hotel of the title is located; it caters for "the Elderly & Beautiful." For many of them, it seems an ideal way to make their meagre pensions go further.
The cast is packed with veteran actors, ages 60 or more, many of whom can be categorised as British national treasures. Dame Judi Dench plays Evelyn, newly widowed and impatient to make decisions for herself and experience a new land. Dame Maggie Smith is a bigoted Londoner who goes to India only because a hip replacement operation would be cheaper there.
Tom Wilkinson is a single High Court judge dreading retirement, but yearning to go back to India, where he experienced a doomed love affair as a young man. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton play an unhappily married couple who have seen their retirement fund frittered away. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup complete the group, as two older people seeking a combination of love, sex and companionship.
When the group arrives together in Jaipur it finds the Best Exotic Marigold is a charming but chaotic place, run by a hapless young Indian man (Dev Patel) incapable of executing his genuinely good idea - to outsource residential care for the elderly. During their stay, the seniors learn plenty of life lessons. Liaisons start up, relationships fall apart and there's a death. In general, the experience changes their lives in ways they could not expect.
Yet the crucial part of the film is its first 20 minutes, when all these characters are seen in Britain at the end of their tether for one reason or another. Britain is portrayed as a grey, gloomy place, with a culture that is dismissive or downright hostile to people on the brink of old age. This is the part of the story that resonates most strongly with the film's senior audiences.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was adapted from These Foolish Things, a 2004 book by the popular novelist Deborah Moggach. She, Dench and Nighy have pointed out the melancholic tone that underpins the story's comic elements. And all three have attacked the way Britain regards its old people.
"The way the elderly are treated, and in some cases warehoused and medicated, rather than nurtured and listened to, is distressing," Nighy, 62, said two weeks before the film's release. "The fact that they pay taxes all of their lives, and then are expected to give all of their savings to maintain themselves should they need assistance, is absolutely disgraceful and one of the great scandals of our society."
Dench says of her character, Evelyn: "I think she feels she has nothing left to lose when she finds herself with no husband, no money and no plan for the future. So she comes to India and then fully embraces it."
Even when Dench, now 77, was shooting the film in India last year, she had embraced its underlying theme, and applied it to herself. "I intend to go on working as long as I can," she told Saga, a magazine aimed at over-50s readers. "I'm certainly not ready to be packed away somewhere and told to put my feet up and go to bed at a certain time. As anyone who's visited one of those homes knows, you just cannot put people into a circle of chairs and have them watch TV all day - it's inhumane."
It was the author Moggach who first had the radical thought: if you can outsource, say, call centres, to developing countries to save money, then why not outsource care for the elderly? She outlined this notion in her novel These Foolish Things eight years ago, and although the book was popular and reviewed well, the idea never caught on.
Now its time seems to have come. Moggach visited the film's set in India and was approached by a local property developer interested in building a retirement home that he admitted was on the lines of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Other developers in different countries, including the Philippines, are considering the idea.
"I think we're seeing a shift of consciousness," she has said, adding waspishly that in many countries other than Britain, India included, older people are not shunned or hidden away, but stay within their families, respected as founts of wisdom.
And three days after the film opened in Britain, a hard-hitting report was published, criticising the neglect and even abuse of the elderly in Britain's care homes and hospitals. It made front-page headlines; so uncanny was its timing, its publication could have been scripted. There was now a perfect storm of awareness around the issue.
It's rare for a film to be quite so much of the moment, to ride the wave of a shift in public opinion - and to help make a difference.
Michael Garin, chief executive officer of Image Nation, is pragmatic about this. "I like the idea that a film can make a difference," he says. "But a company like ours has a definite purpose, and that's to make money. I like films that can do both."
He quotes a quip about show business coined by Woody Allen: "If it wasn't a business, they'd call it show show." Garin adds: "That's what I've always thought about it."
Still, Image Nation finds itself drawn to films with meaning, with a dimension beyond mere entertainment - films that, as Garin notes, "stay in theatres for weeks on end because people see them, enjoy them, and tell their friends about them. These days, so many action movies, for example, open one weekend and close the next".
Thus the company has invested in The Help, the Oscar-nominated film about black maids in the American south during the years of the civil rights movement. It has backed Contagion (starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet), Steven Soderbergh's remarkable and instructive account of how frighteningly fast a deadly virus can spread worldwide, couched in the style and pace of a nail-biting action thriller. Image Nation also put money into The Way Back, an astonishing story of heroism and survival about a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag and walk a gruelling 4,000 miles to freedom through the Himalayas and Tibet.
There is social relevance in all these films, though Garin admits he admires the adage of the legendary Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." In other words, audience don't go to films to be lectured, but to be entertained, and any social issues a screenwriter wishes to highlight should be skilfully integrated into a compelling story.
Still, it's significant that Image Nation has a production deal with the American company Participant Media, which gives social relevance an even higher priority in terms of the films it helps to finance.
It was founded eight years ago by Jeff Skoll, the original president of eBay, who sold his stake in the firm for US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) and in 2004, set himself up in Hollywood with the wish to invest in films that mean something and might subtly change the world.
This sounds like a fantasy, but in its first year, Participant achieved astonishing success with Syriana (2005), a story about the world's damaging dependency on oil starring George Clooney, and North Country (2005), with Charlize Theron as a Minnesota miner who brings a landmark sexual harassment suit against her employers.
Participant would have even more unlikely successes such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which followed the former US vice-president Al Gore on a tour lecturing about the serious effects of global warming. Essentially, it's a documentary with a slide show - yet word of mouth was strong, and sizeable audiences were drawn to it.
The basic principles on which Participant was founded remain unchanged even now: its executives saw social relevance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and invested in it.
Most films that change opinions are documentaries, and no one is more skilled in this regard than the US provocateur Michael Moore. His Bowling for Columbine (2002), a sobering (and darkly funny) study of gun violence in US society, won him an Oscar.
Two years later his hard-hitting Fahrenheit 9/11, about the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, became the most commercially successful documentary of all time, grossing more than US$200 million (Dh735m). Many disputed Moore's facts and research, but the film undoubtedly swelled opposition to the Bush administration.
So films can make a difference, whether by obvious means or more subtly. It's still early days yet for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though its reception in Britain suggests it will win hearts - and minds - across the world.
Curious, isn't it? A gentle comedy-drama about half a dozen elderly people downsizing their futures and setting off for adventures abroad: who'd have thought such a story could make a difference?
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is due to be released in UAE cinemas on March 29.
Five films that changed the world
Cinema can inspire us as well as entertain. While films reflect society, some have been a force for change. Here are five that we at M think did just that.
ROOM AT THE TOP (1959) A searing drama that, for the first time in Britain, reflected the hopes, lives and ambitions of ordinary people. Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) is a young, working-class man who schemes to marry a wealthy factory owner's daughter despite having an affair with an older, married woman. Life chances, class prejudices and the power of aspiration all packed an emotional punch that resonated in the next decade, as more people from modest backgrounds than ever before battled their way to prominence.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) As the Soviet Union and the US were vying to put a man on the moon, Stanley Kubrick's stunning masterpiece gave moviegoers an accurate portrayal of space travel. Its indeterminate plot of mankind's journey of discovery has both dumbfounded and stimulated audiences for decades, and theories have abounded over its allegorical significance, if any. Kubrick insisted that audiences could interpret the film however they wished, but with or without a message, space travel is becoming a commercial reality.
JAWS (1975) Apart from making people afraid to go swimming in the sea, the global success of Steven Spielberg's thriller led to the rise of the blockbuster and ultimately, the multiplex cinema. Its chilling, demonic soundtrack and use of long shots emphasised the helplessness of victims under attack from a great white shark at a seaside resort in the US. Other blockbusters such as Star Wars followed, and regular cinemas began to struggle to accommodate the groundswell of demand for screenings.
NETWORK (1976) Sidney Lumet's biting satire surrounds the ruthless drive for ratings on a US TV network. When the newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces he is going to kill himself on air, chaos breaks out. However, when the programming boss Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) hears of his telecasts' huge ratings before he can commit the deed, she embarks on a mission for shows containing "real people". A remarkable prophesy of reality television, the personal costs to its participants, and what happens when money reigns over morals.
CRY FREEDOM (1987) Sir Richard Attenborough's biopic of the murdered freedom fighter Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) and his friendship with the journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) focuses on South Africa's struggles with apartheid. The brutality suffered by millions there shocked and galvanised filmgoers, as global pressure mounted to free Nelson Mandela. Mandela was released three years later.
* Kevin McIndoe