Director of the new star-studded film, set in Jaipur, chats to Wanderlust about travel, how to dodge Delhi-belly and the best way to drive on Indian roads
One of the stranger sights you’ll see in the cinema this year is Maggie Smith and Judi Dench being propelled through Jaipur’s ruinous rush hour on the back of a moped. The venerable 77-year-old Dames are just two of the acclaimed thesps ‘of a certain age’ who travelled to India to become residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The gentle, touching story of lost souls who choose to live out their recession-buggered pensions in titular dilapidated Jaipur hotel.
Film director John Madden – acclaimed for the likes of Shakespeare In Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and last year's spy-thriller The Debt – spent four months in India preparing and then shooting his movie.
He spoke to Wanderlust's Tom Hawker about his experiences making The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Jaipur isn’t your standard Indian movie location?
No, it’s not the classic tourist perspective of the country. Part of the movie’s topic is travel and the central idea of travelling is to place yourself in a completely unfamiliar environment and see what happens to you as a result. I was very careful to keep the experience of India in the film as true as it could be, the way the characters would experience it.
India is an extraordinary experience by any standard – the chaos, the teeming humanity. Jaipur is particularly fascinating; it’s an ancient city, laid out in a grid system according to a very grand design, which is now dilapidated. It’s famously the Pink City – everything’s painted in this similar colour, so it’s got a very unique atmosphere. But it’s also where old India and new India are colliding in spectacular ways.
Agriculture is still the biggest form of livelihood but at the same time you know that technological India, high-rise India, is also growing.
Everything seems to be going on at the same time in some mysterious harmony, in that people don’t seem to compete with each other as they do in the rest of the world. People in India popping their horns are saying, “I’m here,” and not so much, “Get out of the way!”
Did the over-abundance of great locations cause you any problems?
You’ve got to resist making it a travel brochure. I was so anxious to avoid a certain kind of cliché that I found myself having to go back to film some more of the scenes in Udaipur – a smaller town than Jaipur, with a different feel – to get the atmosphere.
Jaipur has an observatory with astonishingly advanced geometric configurations, which were ways of telling the time and understanding planetary movements. It’s got the biggest sundial that I’ve seen anywhere in the world. There were more of the locations in script but I was anxious that the characters shouldn’t feel like they’re tourists. They’ve gone to live there so they should be fixing a tap, rather than going to a tourist destination.
Age doesn’t seem to be a problem for travellers these days?
I think it’s possible that this generation of that age is the first and the last to have the funds to make it possible to do a journey like this. India need not be an expensive place to stay, God knows. You can do it quite cheap if you do it right – and India applauds that kind of curiosity.
I’m sure the film will strike a chord with that community but not only that community. When we test-screened the movie, we found that young people – even teenagers – responded really well to it, partly because they identify with the older cast as much as they like watching Dev Patel (who plays the ever enthusiastic hotel manager). They see those old people behaving like young people.
Were you not a bit nervous sticking BAFTA’s finest on the back of a moped?
It was challenging! The one thing the film cannot quite capture is the assault on the senses – in particular on the nose – when you’re passing through the archways. In order to avoid the people defecating and urinating on the streets, they built urinals into the walls of the city, which are still used and they tend to be congregated around the wall’s archways – and you’re constantly passing through them and the intensity of what assaults your nose is mind-boggling.
There was always a sort of safety concern; you take your life in your hands when you go on the roads. As the film depicts, you come across things that are literally driving down the wrong side of the road – the cycles get to where they’re going quicker by coming across the traffic. This happens all the time. The trucks are loaded to about three or four times their legal limit, So they’re swaying around on the road. Thank God we got out of there without anyone getting injured. But it was a concern.
What were the technical challenges of shooting?
It’s very difficult; the government exercises very strict control on what they allow. Anything that interrupts the mercantile flow of the city is not. This is partly because the municipal administration is terrified of causing traffic jams that end up in the papers – as if a traffic jam is a rare event! – but they’re afraid of looking like idiots for granting permission.
You had to be very resourceful. We hid cameras and mounted them on vehicles, moved them around and then returned to re-shoot it all. Generally speaking, the actors are moving around in real life. In this country they wouldn’t go unrecognised but they did largely there – though Dev was more frequently recognised than others.
The locals are really curious – the moment they see a camera they stop. If you watch the film closely you’ll see there’s always someone watching. The improvised cricket match that happens, you couldn’t really tell whether they were watching the match or watching us film. You can see them everywhere in the corner of the frame if you look.
Do you do much travelling?
I travel mainly for my job, because my life is governed by what I’m doing. So many people are taking advantage of the travel option when they retire. But I don’t want to retire!
Where have your favourite places been?
India is right up there. I’ve travelled a lot in America. I’ve worked in Greece at Cephalonia (on Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), which was an experience of complete immersion because I had to live on that island for a very long time and get to know the people.
There was a local extra in Corelli’s who walked everyday for miles to be in the film, and I had to stop five times to offer her a lift before she would accept – when she did, she felt I was far too important to be dealing with the likes of her. I remember when I went back to the island a year later, tapping her on the shoulder and she was almost overcome with emotion. A year later I get a letter from her and she spent all of her savings to get the letter translated to English.
The Debt took me to Israel and Eastern Europe. I had wanted to shoot in Berlin but that proved impossible. There was no way I could get back the East Berlin of the 60s because since the Wall’s come down there has been an explosion of growth but I found an almost perfect version of it in Budapest. So I was in Budapest for a long time, which was fascinating.
I’d like to go to China. I was in Russia earlier this year for a film festival. It’s always quite interesting but never long enough. I love travel.
Finally, any tips for avoiding Delhi belly?
If you’re there for a short time, all the normal rules apply. Street food is probably a no-no, not because there’s anything wrong with it but it’s prepared in a way that there are enzymes in it that we can’t cope with.
I got sick the very first time I went there, then I didn’t get sick at all during shooting until the last month – I developed a parasitic infection. I had to go to the tropical diseases hospital when I got back. You have to blitz them with mega-strength antibiotics and they probably don’t eliminate them completely from your system, but it was very small price to pay for me, I didn’t mind at all.
But if you can endure it, your body adapts. One of our first assistants, an Indian who’d gone to university in England for three years, came back and started eating his usual street food again and immediately fell sick. It’s just that we don’t have the right enzymes.
Producer and director John Downer on how he created the BBC's most innovative wildlife series to date (with video) More
Leading wildlife filmmaker Harry Marshall talks about his new series that reveals India's little known wildlife treasures More
Russ Malkin has directed and produced some of the biggest adventure travel programmes on TV. He tells how you can too More
Love travel quizzes, events and competitions? Then sign up today for free so you don’t miss out!