NEW YORK — For esteemed British thespians Dame Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson, shooting a film on location in India proved to be a piquant curry stew of exotic experience, flamboyant adventure and eye-opening revelations.
Rich with undercurrents of faded colonialism and emerging Third World vitality, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” placed Dench and Wilkinson in a heady ensemble of fine English actors (including Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton) and plunked them down for nine weeks of filming in the teeming state of Rajasthan, a kaleidoscopic precinct of ornate temples and ancient kingdoms buffeted by the hustle-bustle of rapid modernization.
During a press event hosted by Fox Searchlight at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Dench, 77, and Wilkinson, 64, talked of their newfound fascination with India and of their joy at working on a film that defies the movie world's fawning obsession with youth culture.
“Marigold Hotel” follows the adventures of seven modest British pensioners as they find themselves “outsourced” to a shambling, once-opulent hotel in the bustling city of Jaipur, where they're promised a comfortable retirement at a fraction of Western prices. Dench plays Evelyn, a widow of meager means whose late husband gambled away their life savings. Wilkinson portrays Graham, a retired London High Court judge who grew up in India and returns to make peace with his haunted past there.
For Dench, this is the third film she's made with director John Madden (after “Mrs. Brown” and her Oscar-winning turn in “Shakespeare in Love”), and she said whenever Madden calls, she'll show up.
“Well, it's very fashionable to say, ‘Oh, he's a wonderful director! Oh, we all love working with him!' He is a wonderful director, and he is thrilling to work with,” Dench said. “After we'd done ‘Mrs. Brown,' I sent him a letter, and I said, ‘John, if you have the part of somebody sweeping up the street, I will come willingly and do it.'
“And then a few years later he wrote, and he said, ‘I have got a part that means that you virtually just walk across the back.' And that was ‘Shakespeare in Love.' So when the opportunity of working with John comes up, I jump at it.”
Dench said nothing in her experience prepared her for playing the penniless but intrepid Evelyn, but she still feels she knows the character intimately.
“I'm not like Evelyn at all, but I understood the emotions that she's gone through,” Dench said. “If you act something that you don't have any experience of, you have to draw on it from somewhere. That's why playing Lady Macbeth is a tricky experience, you know. I can sympathize with the fact that Evelyn was a widow, and she was missing her husband and had a child that she didn't want to impose on. She's an independent soul who still feels she has a bit of life in her.”
Wilkinson, who also worked with Madden on “Shakespeare in Love,” said he too empathized with the melancholy Graham's late-life quest to come to terms with a hidden secret in his past.
“He's somebody who's looking for redemption,” the actor said. “You get to a certain point in your life when you can either dwindle into an old age full of regret and bitterness, or you can do something about it and confront something in yourself. There's a certain sort of bravery, except that he's impelled to do it. There's something inside him that has to do it, and I think that's probably his most important characteristic.
“People like my character are very rare, I would have thought, people who know exactly what they mean to do when they've got the time to do it,” Wilkinson said. “The rest of the characters in this film are responding to some inner compulsion to do something they're not quite sure of. In my real life, I'm probably quite ignorant of myself in that sense, in that I feel that there isn't anything missing in my life. Unquestionably there is, but I don't have the wit to figure out what it is. So I'm just going to carry on doing what I do until I find out.”
First time in India
For both actors, this was their first encounter with India, and the effects on each were profound.
“For me it was the most brain-curdling experience I've ever encountered,” Wilkinson said. “India is a land like no other. I couldn't even begin to guess what I was going to see when I got there. Those of you who have been there know what I'm talking about. And if you haven't you don't begin to know the meaning of the term ‘culture shock' until you get there. I never quite fully recovered.
“Every day you would see something astounding,” he said. “You could never get used to the fact that you would see a woman washing her baby in a puddle in the road. And then, 50 yards down that very same road see wealth or the evidence of wealth so huge. And that sort of contradiction that exists in Indian society is one that could never be reconciled inside me. What it does, of course, is give you hope, I hope it gives you hope, for the future that the Indians can sort out that massive contradiction themselves. They are becoming a fantastically wealthy country, and I hope they start thinking about lifting that massive number of people out of tremendous pov
“One more thing,” Wilkinson continued, “this country (America) is a tiny country, a piffling 300 million people. We in Britain are a piffling 60 million people. (India) is 1.3 billion people — different languages, huge country. It's an enormous proposition, India. And I recommend it to every one of you.”
“Yes, my character says it's an assault on the senses and that's true,” Dench added. “I had never had a desire to go to India, though some of my family lived there for quite a long time. It wasn't one of those places I thought ‘One day, I'll go there.' But within 24 hours I was completely, completely fascinated and bewitched by the country. I know what Tom says. I mean we were also very sheltered. We were in the most marvelous hotels. And yet you came to the gate and you saw people who had absolutely nothing. The beauty of the people, I thought, was astounding. The color, the noise, the smells, everything about it is completely staggering, and I can't wait to go back there.
“We went one night to the city palace, to the Maharajah of Jaipur's residence, and we had this incredible evening,” Dench recalled. “The next day my assistant, Maneesh, took me to a school up in the hills which he and a few other people were responsible for, and suddenly we saw these two small rooms packed full of young children. And you actually don't know what to do; you do not know how you can help. We took them blankets, because it was going to get quite chilly. We took them fruit and sweets and things like that, and you can give all of that out of cars. But it's not even a drop in the ocean for them. So as Tom says, with all this wealth that is undoubtedly happening in India, I hope it gets distributed in some way. I suppose that's rather a naive thing to say.”
Would they return?
So, after their experience with “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” would either of the actors choose to retire there?
“I could retire in India,” Dench said. “I'd go there tomorrow and put my feet up. Well, no, actually, I couldn't retire. But I would definitely go back to India.”
“No, I couldn't retire, either,” Wilkinson agreed. “But if I were to, India wouldn't be my first port of call — much as I love it. I'm thinking Italy, or somewhere in the south of France.”
And although he loved the adventure of visiting the exotic, emerging economic power, the timid traveler in Wilkinson doubts if he'd go back.
“I don't know if I'd ever go back on my own, because, in a movie, they look after you,” he said. “They meet you at the airport. The airport there is chaotic. It's not as if you're going into this beautiful Heathrow or JFK or something like that. It's chaos. Utter chaos.”