March 8, 2012
Few things inspire travel like a good movie. After watching The Lord Of The Rings, hordes flocked to New Zealand, while The Beach, set in exotic Thailand, gave rise to a million backpacker adventures. I was so captivated by Eric Valli’s Himalaya that I went to see a remote region of Nepal. So will The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel entice cinema-goers to India? Quite probably.
Director John Madden’s comedy-drama charts the adventures of an unlikely bunch of Britons, played by Dame Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, looking to stretch their pensions by outsourcing their retirement to India. Lured by evocative advertising about the newly restored Marigold Hotel, the gang are taken in by a false dream of a life of leisure at a bargain price. But although their new environment is less luxurious than they imagined, they are for ever transformed by their experiences of the startling, and often surprising, India.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is actually Ravla Khempur, a charming rural palace hotel in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, about an hour outside the spectacular lakeside city of Udaipur. As the owner of a travel company specialising in the subcontinent, I first came across it almost a decade ago. With a history dating from the early 17th Century, the palace was once famed for its stud of fine Marwari horses and is still home to dancing stallions which perform when requested in front of the magnificent turreted building.
An equine theme runs through each of the hotel’s ten comfortable en suite bedrooms, while a number of quiet nooks and crannies, including a heavenly rooftop terrace, are dotted about the rest of the hotel. This is India at its most enticing.
Not that you would know it from the film. John Madden has chosen Jaipur, the busy capital of Rajasthan, as a setting for the fictional Marigold Hotel, preferring to use the subcontinent’s urban hustle and bustle to tell his tale rather than her relaxed delights. Outside the hotel, a full street market set was created, and many of the ‘location’ shots were taken in Jaipur itself.
Although I understand the impact of urban India on both the characters in the movie and the viewer, in my opinion it is rural India that really seduces the modern tourist. This is Kipling’s India, a land of bullock carts and bicycles, of elegant, sari-clad women carrying water urns from the wells, of turbaned men working in the fields – the India of our childhood imagination, not the superfast India of the 21st Century.
Now that the actors and film crew have left, take a walk out of Ravla Khempur and at once you’ll witness the life most Indians lead: devotees worshipping at the local Krishna temple; indolent buffalo driving machines that squeeze juice from sugar cane; old men in colourful turbans taking that juice, boiling it up and making jagri, a rich sugar syrup.
You’ll see women irrigating the fields while their husbands work the land. You’ll see and smell smoke from the cooking fires. You’ll see children pushing old wheel rims and dogs sleeping in the shade of trees. With most of the ‘must-see’ sites located in towns, much of India’s tourism takes place in her urban centres. But for me, these rural palace hotels are much more rewarding.
Yet as delightful as it is, Ravla Khempur won’t be for everyone. Just as the characters in the film discover, in India taking along a sense of humour is just as important as taking along your Imodium pills.
Hot-water supplies tend to be rather haphazard, lights don’t always work and, just as in the film, beware lowflying doves when opening shutters.
But if you are open to the joy of light, space, colour and smiles, and are prepared to slow down and open your mind to a different way of life, Ravla Khempur is sure to charm you.
Although the film shies away from using any of Jaipur’s best-known tourist sites – not a glimpse of the Palace of the Winds or Amber Fort – a few other notable locations are featured, such the Marigold Market (as locals call the flower bazaar), Kanota Fort and the stunning 10th Century sandstone-step well at Bandikui. But perhaps from a would-be traveller’s perspective, the movie’s second most important location is the Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel. This converted haveli – or rich merchant’s townhouse – is, in my opinion, the ideal place to stay in Udaipur.
Overlooking Lake Pichola and the famous Lake Palace Hotel, Jagat Niwas offers a great location with the best view in town at a fraction of the cost of its more illustrious rival. The rooms are a decent size, the bathrooms work, and the rooftop restaurant is the place to enjoy a quiet gin and tonic as the sun goes down.
India is in my blood. My grandmother, whom we laid to rest last month aged 100, lived with my grandfather in India during the twilight years of the Raj. Both my mother and uncle were born there. As a child, I loved being put on my granny’s lap and told stories of elephants and mahouts, of travel in horse-drawn tongas, of the help she received from friendly maids.
India was my inspiration to travel and now, as the owner of a small farmhouse not far from Khempur, India has become my second home. But I am also aware that India can seem scary, and this film is hardly a traditional advertisement for tourism, luring travellers with shots of stunning scenery.
As Madden explained: ‘India is an extraordinary experience – the chaos, the teeming humanity – so you have the cows, the elephants, the bikes and the buses and everything going on at the same time.’ In presenting this to viewers, he doesn’t sugar-coat the way of life in India but gives it to us warts-and-all. His cast are forced into third-class train carriages and on to battered buses, and he pushes us down rubbishstrewn streets, through the chaotic, death-defying traffic and into the way of the persistent beggars.
But because he does so carrying us on the backs of our favourite actors, who for the most part don’t see these things as ghastly episodes but as life-enhancing experiences, I am sure the film will act as a great tourist draw.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will inspire people to step out of their comfort zone and into one of the most fascinating, diverse, historically rich, romantic and, above all, beautiful places on Earth.
And remember, as the film’s best line declares so wonderfully: ‘Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end!’
by JONNY BEALBY
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