17/06/2012

ROMANCING THE EMPIRE - THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL AND THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY

Hugh Dancy in The Sleeping Dictionary (2001)
The British Empire has its own complex history dating back to its beginning in the 16th century and with its apex and maximum expansion during the Victorian Era. I often work on colonialism, the good that it brought and the bad that it inflicted,  and the British Imperial Myth with my students reading Kipling, Conrad, Orwell, E.M. Forster among others. 
The  outcomes of the British dominance on a quarter of the world for a long period of time are still evident in nowadays world, from the widespread use of English as a second language or as a foreign language turned into a lingua franca - well, that's something due to the more recent American cultural influence too, especially after WWII -  to Britain's having a multi-ethnic population. 
What I want to discuss here though is not the real history of the Empire but 
1. the tendency to romanticize, minimizing, neutralizing the faults of that reality
2. the die-hard prejudices /cliches related to the once-subjected populations
which I recognized  in these two movies I've recently watched: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and The Sleeping Dictionary (2001).

Judy Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (2011) India is seen from the eyes of aging very British  citizens experiencing the hardness of life in a society that doesn't forgive them the fact of being old and poor. Those are crimes you pay being banned as an outcast in nowdays Dorian-Graysh world (if not Peter-Panish). 
So, what vision of India do we get from the eyes of these group of surreal non-tourists who wants to find   somewhere to start afresh?  More or less the same basic idea of their colonies Victorian middle classes developed,  that is a fundamental disrespect for their ancient cultures and an absolute distrust in their skills and capacities to manage or solve problems. They are seen as naive, obtuse or even uncivilized.
Of course, little by little the protagonists of this film are fascinated and conquered by the romantic aspects of living there. For instance,  once she arrives in India, Evelyne (Judi Dench),  writes in her blog: "This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it. And not just cope, but thrive". And she gets a job as senior consultant for young people working at a phone-call centre. She has never worked in her always comfortable life however her experience is precious to young people starting a modern type of business.

So what I could recognize was the same fairy-tale India, we find in Rudyard Kipling's short stories or novels.  Indians are never good enough without the help of western background knowledge. 
When Judith (Penelope Wilton) asks Graham (Tom Wilkins): How could you bear this country? What do you see that I don't?" He answers: "The light, colours, smiles. It teaches me something". Cliches resulting into a romantic, idillyc image but never risen from a deeply respectful attitude. Well, maybe Graham is the only character who was brought up in India and sincerely loves the country and the people there, as well as their habits. Only, his vision of real India is influenced by his nostalgic memories.
The group of unsatisfied guests will stay at the crumbling Marigold Hotel, but the enthusiastic naive young manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel),  will need their help to run the business, financially and practically. His optimistic philosophy is not enough: "Everything will be all right in the end. And if it is not all right, it is not yet the end. " (Read more about this movie at imdb and watch the trailer)

Hugh Dancy and Jessica Alba as John and Selima
The Sleeping Dictionary is a 2001 movie I only came to see by chance last week on a satellite channel. It was released in very few selected theatres at the time and especially meant for the video market (strange enough seen the brilliant cast and their great performances) .
From amazon.com site:  The setting is Sarawak, Malaysia in 1937, when young John Truscott (Hugh Dancy), fresh out of university has come to serve his Majesty's government as an officer of the Empire. The regional governor is Henry Bullard (Bob Hoskins), who oversees the Iban, a tribe of friendly headhunters. John, like his father, has a dream of educating the Iban children, but that requires him to learn the local language and customs. The governor arranges for John to have a "sleeping dictionary," a local girl who will both teach the young Englishmen to speak the language and tutor him in the ways of love.
The girl selected for John is Selima (Jessica Alba), who is half Iban and half British. John initially resists the second part of his education, but in the end falls in love with this beautiful and sensual woman, which violates the taboos of both cultures. Meanwhile, the governor wants his daughter, Cecil (Emily Mortimer) to marry John, and the situation conspires to give our young hero no choice but to stick to the elitist traditions of his own people. Cecil and her mother (Brenda Blethyn) know about the sleeping dictionaries, but it turns out that neither they nor John know everything about Selima and the solution to John's problems that is arranged at the end of the film's first act becomes unraveled in the second.

Now, this is an example of how much the British love romancing the Empire (Kipling docet) . The two lovers, John and Selima,  go through terrible moments and risk their lives but every apparently  insurmountable obstacle is overcome. There are examples of the malicious hyposcrisy which had been reigning long (has it really disappeared?) as well as of the cruelties inflicted to the natives. But this film especially underlines the romantic/sensual  aspects of leaving in the Malaysian jungle and falling for a gorgeous "sleeping dictionary",  meaning a native lover. Sexual intercourse with the natives was accepted but  considering them worth marrying was definitely rejected. So the fairy-tale ending here would have been rather impractical in the reality of the 30s. 
To have a different version of the reality of the Empire, I always have my students read Conrad (Heart of Darkness) or Orwell (Burmese Days) along with Rudyard Kipling (Kim, The Jungle Book) and E. M. Forster (A Passage to India). 




5 comments:

Vava, A country dreaming mum said...

I wonder MG, when do you ever get the chance to do all those things? You teach, you prepare your lessons, you have a family to look after and still you manage the time to watch films. But not only that, you also write detailed and very interesting reviews for this blog which is alway up to date. You are a real wonder :-) I enjoyed reading this as I always do. Your reviews make me eager to watch and read whatever you propose, but time's my master, and I have so little left to myself :-(

Maria Grazia said...

@Vava
Have you ever read my posts starting with "during the last endless ironing session I managed to watch ..."?
I usually see entire series while ironing!
I had to learn how to monetize time.
Thank you very much for being such a regular reader!

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Laura said...

I've got The best Exotic Marigold Hotel in my TO WATCH list, yet again that list requires an amount of time I don't have right now. Maybe in my summer vacations in August? LOL

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