JAIPUR, India — It was a hot, dusty morning here in the capital of Rajasthan as the cast of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" slowly emerged from several battered "vanity" buses lined up in front of the iconic City Palace. Despite the all-star team of British actors and actresses, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith, the big attraction for hundreds of gawking passersby was young Dev Patel, of"Slumdog Millionaire" fame.
The film, which opens in U.S. theaters Friday, is about seven middle-class Britons whose savings have melted down with the global economy. They're lured to the subcontinent with the promise of retiring in affordable luxury, but instead they find a heady mix of heat, noise, smells and tastes — in other words, India. On a day near the end of the 45-day shooting schedule in India in November 2010, there was a bit of a commotion on the set over a scene in which Nighy was to drive a motorbike carrying Dench, in her 70s, sidesaddle. A novice on a motorcycle, he was a bit nervous about having an accident in front of the crowd. Everyone not essential for the shoot was shooed away.
An hour or so later, Nighy had finished the scene and was all smiles. "I'm so relieved," he said, dropping into a chair. "If anything happened, I wouldn't be let back into England. I'd be the man who killed Dench — that guy whose name you can't pronounce."
Overcoming fears, grappling with culture shock and embracing India — to a greater or lesser extent — are core themes for the film's characters. The retirees anticipate an enchanted life of leisure, lush accommodations and snake charmers at a bargain price. What they get instead is a sharp dose of reality forcing them to confront their own demons. While some wither, others come alive. "He quietly catches fire," Nighy said of his character, Douglas, who retired from a job he never really liked. "And India lights the fuse."
Cast members went through a similar process of discovery during their eight-week stay. "Everyone who didn't know India has traveled a long way with this project," producer Graham Broadbent said. "It's like an American going to Iraq. You could take Burger King with you or try and adapt."
Few came away unaffected. "I find it a complete assault on the senses," Dench said.
After a break for lunch, the crew headed out to the street to shoot a scene in which several cast members course through Jaipur traffic, the real thing, in three-wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks. As production assistants yelled at dozens of bystanders under a tree to move out of the shot, director John Madden stooped over two monitors. "Play A again," he said, dressed in shorts and hiking boots, speaking to three cameramen through his headset. "Oops, there's a huge gap. The first tuk-tuk is way ahead of the other. Wait for some traffic."
As the crew filmed, irrepressible, near-oblivious India trundled past — a vendor hawked pineapples, several guys typed on manual typewriters by the side of the road, a herd of cows wandered through the scene. When one bovine showed particular interest in a vegetable seller's cucumber, it got whacked with a stick, causing it to bolt and narrowly miss two boys. "Those cows," said Madden, looking at the monitor again. "That's good."
The movie is based on Deborah Moggach's book "These Foolish Things." But instead of filming in Bangalore, India's outsourcing capital and the setting for the novel, the movie was relocated to Jaipur, which offers a visually stunning backdrop of forts and camels along with the chaos, energy and complexity of modern India.
"Bangalore's modern center is like a technology park in Texas, not exactly what audiences are there to see," Broadbent said. "It's a film."
With so much senior British talent, a main challenge for the producers was to ensure the film had resonance beyond Britain and among younger audiences. That's in part why Patel's character Sonny, owner of the decrepit Marigold Hotel he's oversold to the retirees, is expanded in the film. It's also why Fox Searchlight co-financed the film with Participant Media and Image Nation Abu Dhabi; the specialty division of 20th Century Fox has experience taking relatively modest movies, such as 1997's "The Full Monty," 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" and 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," to larger audiences.
Even as the retirees grapple with racism, unrequited love, insularity, incompatible marriages and other problems, the film also looks at India's growing confidence, epitomized by Sonny's unbounded optimism — and his willingness to bend a rule or two. "He's marketing the hotel as the Taj Mahal," Patel said.
The ultimate objective, Broadbent and scriptwriter Ol Parker said, was to make a film that wasn't a soft-lens, idealized vision of India, nor something in the so-called poverty porn genre focused on feel-good underdogs. "It's for others to judge whether we succeeded," Parker said. "You can't please everyone. I await the response with pleasure and terror."
Some issues in the film are sensitive ones — the tendency in the West to marginalize the elderly, a sense that India is stealing jobs from Europe and elsewhere. Add in India's many religious, cultural, political and social mores and you have a true writer's minefield, Parker said. "You're entering a world that's very perilous." he said. "You just have to tiptoe through everything."
Ultimately, Madden said, he wanted the script to capture the range of emotions people have toward India — from revulsion to wonder. "Look at these vehicles on the street," he said between scenes. "India's unpredictable and absurd but fantastically resourceful and energetic. And funny. The guys are driving, but they can't see where they're going."
A unique part of the experience, several stars said, was the camaraderie they developed working so closely uninterrupted for such a long period, a rare occurrence in the life of busy actors. It was a fight to block out everyone's schedules for eight weeks straight — like herding cats, Broadbent said — but it was also a reunion of sorts, since most had worked together in the past. "It's almost like a theater company," he said. "It's almost like they're doing rep 50 years ago."
From start to finish, the time spent in India was unforgettable, Dench said, one she recorded in a daily journal for her grandchildren.
"The color, atmosphere, difference between extreme wealth and abject poverty of India, the smell, the spices," she said. "Whatever anyone says about India, multiply it 10 times."