The 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its 2015 sequel wowed audiences for their simple yet fun-filled storylines: a group of British retirees comes to India to see if they might like to spend their dotage in this country.
In 2016, BBC launched a reality TV series inspired by the movies. The second season of The Real Marigold Hotel recently wrapped on BBC One. It’s a sometimes-eccentric, sometimes-profound, and always-charming look at discovering India anew at a ripe old age.
The eight British/American men and women plucked for the exercise make for an eclectic bunch. These are actors Paul Nicholas, Lionel Blair and Amanda Barrie, wildlife expert Bill Oddie, chef Rustie Lee, snooker champion Dennis Taylor, doctor Miriam Stoppard, and singer Sheila Ferguson.
For a show that relies on its members falling for the charms of India, there are worse places to nestle them in than Kochi’s Le Colonial, an enchanting boutique hotel whose spartan rooms bespeak understated luxury. For one month, Le Colonial becomes the participants’ home, and the possible long-term retirement stay should the plan work.
It is perhaps an outcome of the age of the participants – they are all north of 70 – that they do not come to India burdened with sky-high expectations of “discovering spirituality” or “finding themselves”. Yet, India is always a surprise to the foreigner, and the show gives us a real peek into how their time here both enriches and changes them.
To Lionel, the country is at first hard to adjust to. The luxurious confines of the hotel are a stark contrast to the shanties that abut it – even though Kochi appears cleaner than most urban agglomerations to the Indian eye. On the other hand, Paul and Dennis form a boisterous friendship that takes them to Madurai and Ooty.
The most affecting story is of Sheila, formerly of the 1970s pop group Three Degrees, who has been single since the loss of her partner eight years ago. With a home in Mallorca, Spain, where she lives alone, she is keen on moving anywhere in the world that she finds love.
For a series like this, some element of exotica cannot be entirely eliminated. Shots of monkeys feeding their young and of men painted as animals make a routine appearance. To be fair, though, Kerala does have a tradition of face painting during the tiger festival and Onam, both of which are showcased here. The bird-watching, tiger-loving Bill naturally participates in the former.
The series largely skips the stereotyping. The group itself is a racially diverse bunch. In one scene, on coming across people living on the banks of the backwaters, Sheila remembers her own childhood in the American south. In another, Rustie cooks up a meal for everyone that incorporates elements from Indian cooking.
I kept wondering if the show was really about how good India would be as a retirement place. Certainly, the script repeatedly endorsed the idea, and Sheila even went looking for a flat. But in the end, everyone returned home and the retirement arc was abruptly dropped.
The joys of travel are a theme commonly refracted through the eyes of the young, a demographic that can go wherever its heart desires. The Real Marigold Hotel shows this is true for septuagenarians too. In fact, with a life fully lived and the prospect of death on the horizon, the old can glean pleasures from travel that the young can only imagine.