As a social work educator I am constantly thinking of creative ways in which to engage with students and introduce them to social issues. Films, especially current ones, are one way of doing this. Having recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel heralded as a ‘feel good factor’ of a film, it struck me that it is brimming with some not so pretty social issues: ageism, sexuality in older age, loss and dying, ill-health, shrinking pensions, economic crisis to name but a few.
This film portrays Britain as a dull grey country, where the economy is shaky, the National Health Service buckling and older people are rarely valued or recognised. It is against this somewhat dismal backdrop that the viewer is introduced to seven characters. Evelyn, played by the talented Judi Dench, is recently widowed and finds herself making decisions for the first time in her life starting with considering how to deal with the debts left behind my her husband. Graham, the retired judge and gay man seeks answers to a past left uncovered. Muriel, overtly racist, is awaiting a hip replacement which is outsourced to avoid an extensive waiting list. Jean and Douglas, a bickering couple are disillusioned with the dreary options retirement has to offer after a lifetime of work. Madge freeing herself from the demands of grand motherhood, is looking for a new romance.Norman, probably the most comical of characters, is looking for sex.
This somewhat unlikely group of people are all enticed by the promises of a luxury, refurbished hotel in Jaipur, India, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which promises sanctuary and hope for “the elderly and beautiful”. In contrast to the grey skies of Britain, India is depicted as a land bursting with vibrant colours, aromatic smells and bustling with sounds. Far from exotic, the hotel is practically in ruins, with missing walls and doors and smothered in dust. On arrival they are greeted by the enthusiastic young owner, Sonny whose mantra is “Everything will be all right in the end… if it’s not all right then it’s not the end”.
Whilst being a good way to introduce students to social policy and issues, the film isn’t without its stereotypes. Firstly, the environmental depiction of India as a place where pedestrians are over ridden by cars or squashed into over-crowded buses, tut tuts snaking at high-speed within the city streets, children begging whilst others play cricket with makeshift bats. Secondly, its people who enjoy spicy foods and family life epitomised by a son overshadowed by successful siblings and an over-interfering mother who is intent in choosing his bride. Whilst the film does much to portray ageing in a positive light, the stereotypes are most keenly observed in the character of Norman. Here is an ageing man portrayed as preoccupied with the absence of a sex life which means he will go to great lengths to rectify this by lying about his age, status, name and seeking medical assistance.
The ‘typical’ scenario that frustrated me the most was Graham, who finally became re-acquainted with the love of his life, dies suddenly but peacefully. Why is there rarely a happy ending for gay people or couples? Didn’t this happen in Four Weddings and a Funeral too?
One of the interesting issues that the film throws up is that of cultural competence. The character Evelyn, becomes a cultural adviser to a call centre and poetically describes the art of dunking:
“Dunk? Means lowering the biscuit into the tea and letting it soak in there and trying to calculate the exact moment before the biscuit dissolves, when you whip it up into your mouth and enjoy the blissful union of biscuits and tea combined. It’s more relaxing than it sounds”.
Despite not being the most profound film or script written, it is amusing and snippets of this film will inevitably provoke discussions with students. I might just give it a go.