Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A very English take on India

I'm finally back in Delhi after nigh on a month in the UK, which arose because of an issue with my visa (don't ask) which meant that I had to reapply for it rather than renewing it. So my first anniversary in India was actually spent in London. It was frustrating to have to be away so long, but I have to admit it was nice too - especially escaping the June heat. But in general I just feel I've spent far too much time this year hopping from pillar to post, and particularly between Delhi and London for work. Happily there are no more trips scheduled for the rest of this year (though there will certainly be some in-country travelling to be done) so I'm hoping I can focus a bit more on India for my remaining time here.

Anyway, on the flight back I finally managed to do something I'd been planning for a while: watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If you don't know it, it's a recent film featuring a gaggle of British pensioners heading off to Jaipur for retirement, and it has a cast list that reads like a Who's Who of every English period drama you've seen in the last fifteen years (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie...) as well as Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. Obviously I had to watch it, since the basic subject matter is the culture shock experienced by new arrivals in India from the UK, albeit of a rather different generation.

The film is very, very British. It has a gentle, understated humour, it is populated by amusing eccentrics, it has an undeniable warmth to it, and like most British films it's ever so slightly smug about how gentle, understated, amusing, eccentric and warm it is. Of course with a cast like this you can't go far wrong with this material and it was a pleasant dose of escapism on a dreary flight. But did it speak to me as someone who's been through the settling in period in India?

Well, yes and no. Movies are simplistic and in this one everyone reacts in a fairly linear and straightforward way to their new surroundings. Penelope Wilton is horrified; Judi Dench is wide-eyed and keen to explore; Maggie Smith is repulsed; Tom Wilkinson rediscovers his youthful energy. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, meanwhile, barely seem to notice they are in India at all and just seem to carry on as they were. With the exception of Smith's character, none of them seem to experience much conflict or fluctuation in how they react to the country.

This is where it really didn't ring true for me, because I've been through every one of those reactions and a dozen more in my year in India. You can't have a simple reaction to a place like this; it doesn't let you. There have been days when, like Dench's character, I've been brimming with zest to get out and see as much as I can; equally, I've had Wiltonesque days of wanting to stay indoors with a glass of wine and pretend I'm somewhere else.

Of course this is an ensemble piece so the filmmakers can be forgiven for not probing individual emotions too deeply; there just isn't time. But the broad brush approach also has the effect of making the film curiously uninformative about India. Some old stereotypes are wheeled out, like India the place of spiritual discovery (though thankfully this is not over-played), and some new ones (a call centre features heavily). Caste issues are briefly touched upon, and one character remarks how Indian people "see life as a privilege, not a right" (I'm not totally sure what that means, to be honest). But overall, the film's gaze remains firmly on its British protagonists. Some great visuals of the teeming crowds of Jaipur aside, the story could have been set pretty much anywhere.

There were some elements that were rather more surprising - Tom Wilkinson's story arc, in which he searches for the Indian man he fell in love with 40 years previously, in particular - the film generally sticks to safe territory. The Indian characters - likeable but naive young man, overbearing mother, mostly-silent-but-ineffably-wise old man - have been seen before and Dev Patel is on very familiar turf. I was a bit uncomfortable with the ending, in which the fate of the eponymous hotel is resolved in a manner that hints at a somewhat neo-colonialist attitude. But maybe I'm just being over-sensitive.

Anyway, I certainly enjoyed the film and the stellar cast do exactly what they are very, very good at: engaging their audience. But they stay firmly centre stage, and India is decidedly playing only a supporting role.


Anna Jo Kap said...

first week here for me!
Nice to have you back!

Nikhit said...

Hi there Chris,
I was just looking around at networking with fellow British expats like myself and I stumbled across your rather excellent blog!
I'm presently a medical student I research here in Hyderabad, India.
I'm very into theatre and started my own little theatre start-up in Hyderabad with rather positive results.
I would love to talk to you some time!
Do drop me a line



Avicenna said...

Another mancunian in India? The world is a small place (And India is so very large considering both our blogs have similar names).

I think the best line to describe India is that you can see the best of humanity right next to the worst. For every person who doesn't care there is one who will do something incredible.

Chris said...

Hi guys, thanks for the comments and for coming back despite my silence of late!