by Tony Dayoub
The lushness and spirituality characteristic of India has long been a source of inspiration for filmmakers. But with few exceptions, the sometimes reductive nature of cinema has proven ill equipped to capture the gorgeous country in all of its complexity. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire often come closer to depicting a squalor and cultural dissonance one could confuse with a type of neorealism but is in fact closer to a kind of "poverty porn." Two recent movies take up the challenge of illustrating contemporary India, and, though both are deeply flawed, it's not surprising that the one directed by an American of Indian descent comes closer to success.
That film is Patang (The Kite), directed by Chicagoan Prashant Bhargava. Bhargava builds a tapestry of intersecting stories around Uttarayan, the annual kite festival in Ahmedabad in which competitors coat their kite lines with crushed glass in order to cut down those of their opponents. Rarely using contrivances to pull the plot in any preconceived direction, Bhargava lets Patang's multi-pronged look at India's society unfold at a deliberate pace. Using only four actors and a large stable of non-actors, Bhargava examines the state of transition the country now finds itself in, caught between the morality and class system of the old world and the modern social mores of the new India.
As a first-generation American, I (and I imagine Bhargava) most related to Priya (Sugandha Garg), the beautiful young native of the more metropolitan Delhi visiting her more tradition-bound extended family for the first time since childhood. Through Priya, (herself documenting her visit on film) we see the charm of the old India while still noting the considerable amount of obsolete cultural ignorance it must still learn to leave behind. Bhargava might err a bit too much on the side of imposing stylistic control over the cinematography (color filtering, shutter-speed effects, etc.), a glossy distraction from Patang's minimalist narrative. But ultimately, one is left with the feeling of having truly learned something about an unfamiliar culture one has spent two hours observing.
While John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't exactly ignore the culture clash unique to India, it doesn't exactly favor it. Instead it relegates it to secondary importance in order to focus on a trite plot involving the reawakening of a group of English retirees in an exotic land. They are lured to Jaipur, many of them spending their entire savings based on a brochure touting the titular hotel as a home for the "elderly and the beautiful." But it is merely a rundown roach-trap inherited by Sonny (Dev Patel) an over-optimistic dreamer in over his head. Playing dutiful son to his widowed traditionalist mother, it is through him and his relationship to one of India's modern young women (we know she's one, if for no other reason than because she works at a call center) that we get the tiniest of glimpses into the same society that formed the core of Patang's story.
But Marigold's a mess. Madden skips around from one retiree's storyline to another's with no rhyme or reason, inexplicably giving more prominence to some than others and casting the senior actors accordingly. If Judi Dench or Maggie Smith of Tom Wilkinson are onscreen you can bet they will get more attention than Celia Imrie or Ronald Pickup. The cast does their best to overcome the film's structural issues. What little charm there is to the movie is generated by the ensemble. But only one storyline, that of Wilkinson's, is fully fleshed out.
Wilkinson plays a judge who returns to the city because he grew up there and left behind a lover because of cultural taboos which came between them. Now, old and lonely, he wonders what happened to his old flame. Set against the complicated backdrop of Indian marital rituals, Wilkinson's story deserved some kind of upgrade; it's a pity this subplot wasn't made into its own movie. It's the most heartfelt and honest of Marigold's stories and the only one to give equal consideration to India instead of merely using it as window dressing.