Like its 2012 predecessor, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the new The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel centers on a group of English retirees who have migrated to India in order to live more cheaply and in the process found their lives have gotten better.
Driving both films is the retirees’ self-conscious refusal to treat old age as a series of disappointments. They have not lost their desire for romantic love despite their fragility, and much to their delight, they discover that in India they are not expected to give up the feelings the young take for granted. In the ramshackle Marigold Hotel in which they have taken up residence, the retirees have as a result become a vibrant community.
In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the retirees welcome the fact that every morning, attendance is taken to make sure none of them has died during the night. They find it reassuring to hear their names called, and they realize the owner of the hotel is being truthful about his desire “to create a home for the elderly so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die.”
The comedy in the retirees’ situation is pushed to its limits by an ensemble cast headed once again by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy. Joining them as a newcomer is Richard Gere, now in his mid-60s but still looking like a leading man. Gere readily slips into the role of an American businessman who accustoms himself to the ways of the Marigold Hotel.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made nearly $137 million worldwide, and director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker, both British, have done their best to build on their earlier success without repeating themselves. They have put even more emphasis than before on their retirees finding love in their sunset years.
In its portrayal of Brits in India, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn’t aspire to the political seriousness of an epic film like Richard Attenborough’s Academy Award-winning Gandhi of 1982, but the “liteness” of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has not trivialized it.
India has been a source of endless fascination for the English, especially its modern novelists and essayists. From Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 Kim, to E.M. Forster’s 1924 Passage to India, to George Orwell’s 1949 “Reflections on Gandhi,” to Paul Scott’s 1966 Jewel in the Crown and the subsequent books that complete his Raj Quartet, the British have not stopped debating the place of India in their lives. But over the years, they have changed the terms of debate, moving from Kipling’s defense of British imperialism, to Forster’s criticism of it, to Orwell’s and Scott’s sense that Britain bungled the way it granted India independence. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel extends this debate by infusing it with laughter.
The standard that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel uses for measuring a country is its capacity for creating an environment in which those living in it can find joy, and by this measure the film’s contemporary India as represented by the Marigold Hotel is a striking success.
Those who fall in love and find partners include the shy Evelyn Greenslade and Douglas Ainslie (Judi Dench and Bill Nighy); the highly attractive Mrs. Kapoor (Lilette Dubuy), mother of the Indian owner of the Marigold Hotel, and Guy Chambers (Richard Gere); the flirtatious Madge Hardcastle (Isabel Imrie) and her Indian driver.
Each of these couples faces a different set of obstacles. With Evelyn and Douglas it’s their excessive caution. With Mrs. Kapoor and Guy, it’s the differences in what each thinks is sexually appropriate for their age. With Madge and her driver, it’s her longstanding desire to marry the richest man she can find.
Slowly and tentatively, the couples do, however, overcome the romantic obstacles they face, and the film ends with them, along with most of the cast, coming together for the wedding of Sonny Kapoor, the young owner of the Marigold Hotel (Dev Patel) and Sunaina, his long suffering bride (Tina Desai). The wedding culminates with a Bollywood-style dance number, and, like the ballet sequence that dominates the end of An American in Paris and celebrates the love of its principals, an aspiring American painter (Gene Kelly) and the French girl (Leslie Caron) he wants to marry, the Bollywood-style dance number lasts too long for the movie’s own good.
But for the retirees of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the length of the wedding and the dance are not a problem. They are in no rush to get back to business as usual. Like the characters in American musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, they believe it’s absolutely reasonable to live for happy endings.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author most recently of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.