Two summers ago I travelled across America by train on a book tour. Halfway from New York to Los Angeles my agent emailed me a script of a film set in India, starring Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and directed by the awesome John Madden, who gave us Shakespeare In Love. ‘The part is Madge, a lively grandmother on the look-out for a new husband. Read it.’ I did. No sleep that night.
Though the Marigold Hotel is less luxurious than they imagined, they are transformed by their shared experiences, discovering that life and love can begin again when you let go of the past. By the time I hit California I had emailed back that I loved the script. Then texted the same to the scriptwriter Ol Parker, whose film Imagine Me & You I’d been in five years before. He engineered a vetting interview for me at Fox Studios with five very high-powered, high-heeled producers.
Two days of waiting followed while I travelled back across the country to a snazzy hotel in Chicago. As I put my key into the lock of my room my phone buzzed. ‘They want you.’
Next step, on returning to London, an interview with John Madden. Bill Nighy was in before me. Then the green light flashed for me to pack for India… A place I had fallen in love with 20 years before when on a British Council theatre tour of The Merchant Of Venice.
Now, with excitement too high to quite believe, I was off to film with, as is always the case in our lives, some actors, dear friends who I had worked with before, some I hadn’t but always wanted to, and some I had never met. Here are some extracts from the diary I kept during filming 16 months ago...
10 October 2010
In India they say 10/10/10 is a lucky date, so it’s serendipitous that on the tenth of the tenth, 2010, I meet up with friends at the re-opening of London’s fabulously restored Savoy Hotel. And just as we raise our champagne glasses, over in Udaipur, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starts shooting the first scene. Tonight I fly out to join the cast in Udaipur.
I depart from Delhi on the overnight train to Udaipur at 19.00. I’m sharing a sleeping compartment with Raj, an electrical engineer, who at 19.03 is already in his pyjamas. The First Class lavatory is a hole in the train floor – you can see the rails speeding below. I’m too excited to sleep. At dawn, the train grinds to a steamy halt, and as the door opens onto the bustling platform, crammed with bhaji sellers and bicycles, I’m greeted by the smiling faces of our writer Ol Parker and producer Graham Broadbent. What a welcome.
They’re running a bit behind, so I haven’t started working yet. We’re staying at the Oberoi Udaivilas Hotel. It’s overwhelmingly luxurious, with your own swimming pool… well sort of. It’s a single-lane canal round the hotel, where people swim past your window. I’ve a four-poster bed with 29 embroidered pillows, cool lime juice and hot masala tea. The difficult bit is the minute you leave its guarded gates you will quite likely see a little girl scrabbling for a cabbage leaf to survive.
Marigold garlands have been festooned around the place for the arrival tonight of Bill Nighy, who comes armed with two bottles of Bollinger champagne. I had texted him to ask if he could possibly buy some en route, as I know Dame Jude loves champs and we can’t find any here.
I decided to sample a different dish each morning from the Indian page of the breakfast menu, so today it’s poori bhaji – three puffed-up, deep-fried wheat balls and potato curry with papaya preserve. Very tasty. In the garden I admire the stripy chipmunks, the kestrels soaring above and I spot a sign that reads ‘Do not pluck the roses’.
Penelope Wilton, Judi Dench and I go on a red boat around the lake to try to cool off in the scorching 40ºC heat, while our friends back in London are all complaining about the frosts. The cast have Bill’s champagne in Judi’s room this evening followed by a scrumptious array of curried delights at the lakeside restaurant under the moon. Tomorrow, at last, I work. Hooray!
I slept sporadically, and at 5am I’m escorted from the lobby to my car by my assistant Yash, a gentle young man of nearly 30. We have all been assigned personal assistants to prevent us from getting lost or into trouble. The car is perfumed inside with incense, while sitar music plays on the radio. Although it is still as dark as night, the street cafés we pass are all packed. Along the roadside there are pretty lights in the shape of tents, with statues inside to celebrate the forthcoming Hindu festival of Diwali.
My first scene is with the adorably effervescent Dev Patel, who plays the young manager of the hotel. He is showing his guests to their allotted rooms in The Not Quite Yet Best or Exotic Marigold Hotel (you’ll have to see the film to discover what that means!).
It’s 5.15am and I’m en route for my first scene with Ronnie Pickup, who plays the dapper septuagenarian Norman. It’s an hour and a half’s drive to the Marigold Hotel set every day, and the traffic in India is nothing like London. No one wears a helmet to ride a scooter, and they change gears on their motorbikes with bare feet. Drivers never look from side to side to see what’s coming, they just go when they fancy, and they never stop honking their horns. It’s terrifying. I count families of five or six, including babes in arms, squashed onto one scooter, vivid coloured saris billowing behind. A milkman zooms past us on a Harley-Davidson balancing huge milk churns on either side.
Happy Diwali!! By 9am it is stifling. Penelope and I sneak out of the hotel without our assistants (which we’re not supposed to do) for our own private adventure. We flag down a tuk-tuk (a motorised three-wheeled minivan) and career into town, dodging sacred cows specially decorated for Diwali with pink painted horns and polka-dotted backs. On our walk home we notice dolls made out of cowpats on each doorstep, all part of the celebrations for this Festival of Lights. Back at the hotel an embossed invitation has arrived to drinks tomorrow at the Royal Palace. The Maharajah is sending a launch to ferry us across the lake for a firework display.
Yash is pleased I have asked to visit all the Hindu temples and learn some words. He teaches me Suprabhat, ‘Good morning’, and Shubh ratri, ‘Goodnight’. We go to the Shri Jagdish temple, built in 1652. It is invigorating, beautiful, strange, ancient, and full of mystery.
We disembark from our royal red barge and are driven up the hill to the steps of the Maharajah’s palace, where bagpipes herald our arrival. It made our hearts sing and our eyes water. Guards on white stallions are dressed in scarlet, with cockerel plumes on their hats. While glasses of Veuve Clicquot and flaming mutter paneer on sticks (an Indian cheese delicacy) are passed around, a tiny piper in tartan trews and spats plays a slightly off-key but spirited Gay Gordons. I adore the Maharajah, so dashing in his scarlet dress with pearl buttons, drinking scotch and flirting.
A mongoose is on the prowl round the breakfast tables this morning, which makes me scan the ground for possible cobras. Tomorrow we leave Udaipur to continue filming in other locations in or near Jaipur, 250 miles to the north-east. The rest of the cast fly out while I get back onto a jam-packed overnight train.
Arrive in the Pink City. John Madden had warned us: for Udaipur think Harrogate, for Jaipur, Birmingham but with 20 times more traffic. I think it’s more like Catford. The difference is, here cows wander in and out of the shopping malls and the goats wear stripy jumpers.
As we set out to work at 6am it’s already hot and humid, then suddenly there’s a crack of thunder, torrents of rain and the brightest forks of lightning I’ve ever seen. We’re about to shoot the bus ride when our characters arrive in India and make their way to the Marigold Hotel. It means we’ll be driving on the motorway all day and into the night. It’s now 7.15am and the cast are huddled in their Winnebagos, quaking with fear. Meanwhile, one of the Indian crew, our props master heroically holding an umbrella, is struck by lightning. Although his arm goes a bit numb and he’s shaken, he’s otherwise unharmed. Then flash, bang… he falls to the ground again. Who said lightning never strikes twice? According to local folklore this man is now considered a god.
Twenty elephants parade past the hotel on their way to the royal wedding tomorrow. The Maharajah of Jodhpur’s only son, Prince Shivraj Singh, India’s most eligible bachelor, is getting married to Gayatri Kumari, princess of the Himalayan kingdom of Askot and the whole thing is happening in our hotel! Prince Charles, Sting, Bruce Willis, Mick Jagger and John Travolta are all on the guest list. How come the Maharajah knows all these celebrities? The answer is, I believe, that the groom went to a posh English boarding school.
Wow – the wedding is sensational! The lawn is a breathtaking sea of saris. The lady guests delight at discovering James Bond’s M and Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall – Dames Judi and Maggie – on the same hotel lawn watching the nuptial splendour below, then we’re invited by the Maharani of Jaipur to join the reception. Elephants with painted heads and toenails lead the parade, a golden carriage pulled by white horses delivers the groom and then the male guests follow. The tradition is for the women to stay apart for the procession. Peter Mandelson is also at the hotel for another party. Judi and I take bets on whether he’ll say hello. He doesn’t, but Jude dares me to, and I do. He is charming. Among in-house services of this hotel, I notice, it lists a ‘hotel astrologer’. I’ve seen him, but he’s spooky and always in a bad mood.
This morning we finished a night shoot at 1.50am, and I didn’t get to bed until 3.30am. Tom Wilkinson and his wife Diana invite me to go to the Monkey Palace today, three natural bathing pools set in a mountain where the water is famously blessed, guarded by sacred monkeys. When I ask Dame Mags if she wants to join us, she replies, ‘I’ve been there.’ And with those three words I know exactly what it is going to be like. It’s utter filth, three levels of disgusting putrid pools swarming with bad-tempered monkeys. The highest pool is green and looks as if someone’s been sick in it.
Total haze this morning. Mags says when she looked out of the window she thought she was in Argyll. It is damp and raining. We have to have a day off as we can’t be filmed travelling the streets in our tuk-tuks in this murk, otherwise they might think we’ve been filming off the North Circular. Maggie, Penelope and I go to The Gem Palace, the most famous shop in Jaipur, and have fun trying on priceless diamond headdresses in the back room.
While the rain comes down we still can’t film. Olivia, our second assistant director, takes me to see the men making flower garland necklaces and curtains for all the weddings at the Rambagh Palace Hotel and elsewhere in Jaipur. The scent of all the rose petals, sacks of them, huge vases of tea roses all being decorated by the men (no women in sight) is beyond belief and nostril.
It’s 4.35am and we pile into cars for the two-hour drive to film a scene that includes a funeral pyre. There’s mist rising from the grass verges and vibrant pink bougainvillea blooming for miles along the central spine of the motorway. We’re going to the Hindu equivalent of a cemetery or crematorium, and that means we’ll be filming on holy ground. Under the strict Hindu laws no meat is allowed. The crew aren’t very pleased with breakfast – they’d prepared themselves for no sausage and bacon, but now discover eggs aren’t permitted either on this hallowed ground, and we’re here until sunset. Uh-oh…
I’m told England is in the grip of blizzards. The M1 and A1 are closed, trains frozen on lines in Kent, people stuck all night, and some airports closed. Not ours I hope, as we fly home tomorrow.
As I write this curled up in my ‘sleeping suite’ on the plane I wonder how I can say thank you enough for this enchantment. As we start our descent to Heathrow I realise that soon it will be as though it never happened. The music in my headphones as we land is Doris Day singing Qué Será Será. It’s still dark here – but back in India it’s 11am. I know that, as I haven’t changed my watch. We disembark from our royal red barge and are driven up the hill to the steps of the Maharajah’s palace, where bagpipes herald our arrival. It made our hearts sing and our eyes water. Guards on white stallions are dressed in scarlet, with cockerel plumes on their hats. While glasses of Veuve Clicquot and flaming mutter paneer on sticks (an Indian cheese delicacy) are passed around, a tiny piper in tartan trews and spats plays a slightly off-key but spirited Gay Gordons. I adore the Maharajah, so dashing in his scarlet dress with pearl buttons, drinking scotch and flirting.
- Celia Imrie. This article first appeared in the Daily Mail (18/02/2012)