Although current editions are all re-named to reflect the recent movie title, Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel was published as THESE FOOLISH THINGS. It introduces us to Dr Ravi Kapoor who is of Indian heritage but considers himself English. He is married to an English woman and her widowed father, Norman, is living with the Kapoors because he keeps getting kicked out of nursing homes due to his behaviour (he’s basically a slovenly, lecherous old man with a foul mouth). At the hospital where he works Kapoor comes across Muriel, an elderly woman who fell in her council flat and was not found for two days. This causes a media outcry which turns into something else when it becomes clear Muriel is a fairly nasty bigot. Mostly due to his desperation at wanting to be rid of his disgusting father-in-law Kapoor and his cousin Sonny, who still lives in India, eventually decide to open a retirement home in Bangalore which they will run specifically for elderly English people who no longer want to live in England or who can’t afford to. Kapoor uses Norman’s obsession with sex to entice him to make the move and other elderly folk move for their own reason. Unexpectedly Muriel moves too though her reasons are not made clear until well into the novel.
The book is a very readable exploration of the difficulties associated with ageing in modern societies. For the most part the issues are dealt with in a light, fairly undemanding way but it’s not all frothy stuff. While Norman’s never-ending obsession with his impotence is a bit tiresome and tawdry his underlying fear that he doesn’t matter any more because he can’t be a real man is very realistic. Most of the characters are afraid in some way and their worries are well depicted and very credible. Evelyn is a widow with two adult children, one of whom poorly invested her husband’s retirement savings which is what forces her to move to India. Her strained relationship with the children, depicted from both her point of view and theirs, is a highlight of the book. At least in the Anglo Saxon culture there are not a lot of accepted norms for how these particular kind of relationships should play out in the modern context and everyone scrabbling around trying to work it out seemed pretty credible to me.
I must admit though to feeling uncomfortable at some of Moggach’s depictions of Indian culture. I understand that she was deliberately showing the country through the eyes of a bunch of old, white and sometimes racist people but there was nothing provided to counterbalance their view. The fact that the book was bulging with stereotypes (all Indian products being inferior to their English counterparts, people working in call centres and so on) was bad enough but it was the scenes which I think I was meant to find endearing that were most off-putting to me. For example one of the female characters (I think it’s Evelyn) at one point quite lovingly compares the hair of a local girl to the coat of a Labrador she once owned. Squirm..
As an exploration of the inner lives of a set of people the book is, overall, successful. There wouldn’t be too many readers who would fail to identify with one or other character, even if it is one of the children of the ageing characters, and there are definitely thoughts to be provoked with regard to the issues of ageing well in our modern world. The book’s exotic setting was less successfully depicted as it really did not seem to even attempt to offer an alternative to every stereotype that has ever existed about India.
2011’s THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, with its cast of superb English actors, is only very loosely based on Maggoch’s book. It is basically the story of an Indian hotel which its owner, who inherited the property from his father, markets to the English elderly as an alternative retirement option. After the briefest of setups, generally explaining why each person decides to go to India, the film then depicts what happens to each person once they arrive in the country. Some thrive in the new environment and some, one in particular, don’t.
The Kapoors don’t feature at all here and there are only three characters directly based on characters in the book, with others being a mixture of mashups and completely new characters. In fact the children of these old stalwarts don’t feature at all. The biggest departure from the book though is really that the characters are all very muted when compared to those in the book. For example in the book Norman is truly repugnant, in the movie he barely registers as occasionally offensive. Muriel’s overt racism is also heavily toned down.
That said though it’s hard not to like the movie on its own terms. With some of England’s best actors including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, you can’t really go too wrong and the ensemble cast does work really well here in allowing the individual stories to play out. It’s not exactly ground-breaking and most of it is fairly predictable but it is…pleasantly entertaining if not exactly thought-provoking. With the exception of Graham’s story (he’s the character played by Tom Wilkinson), which I found far more contrived and not really credible at all, the stories all offer something interesting about the process of learning new things at any age and the excellent cast does well with what is a fairly ordinary script. The film did not make me as uneasy as the book did in the way it treated India and Indians though there is still some level of discomfort at the way Indian characters are only truly successful if they’re serving a Brit or being assisted by one and there are still more clichés and stereotypes than I think we really need to be seeing in the 21st century.
This is difficult as neither the book nor the film are either outstanding or truly awful. They’re both…OK. In the end though I think I’d have to award this bout to the film, mostly because of the excellent cast who light up the screen even though none of them are terribly stretched by their roles or the script,
If you’re coming to the book because you’ve loved the film I’d be wary as the book isn’t nearly as engaging or funny as the film and the stories are quite different. The book has a harsher, probably more realistic sensibility but is also a lot more patronising in its depiction of Anglo-Indian relations.
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