India is a cradle of storytelling. The land of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Sufi poets, Rabindranath Tagore, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy is awash with great tales and epic texts. The vastness of the subcontinent and its many peoples, cultures, religions and politics are the very stuff of drama.
Walk into any bookstore (if you can find these rapidly vanishing establishments) and gaze upon the many titles by Indian authors or those of Indian origin. This grows exponentially if that bookstore is in Canada, the U.K. or elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
The storytelling increases again when it comes to cinema. India produces more movies than any other country. Most Americans and, unfortunately, some ill-informed film journalists use the term “Bollywood” to mean Indian cinema but that is like conflating all films made in the U.S. with Hollywood.
Independent and regional filmmakers produce volumes of films in India annually that bear little if any resemblance to the so-called “masala” films made in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Festivals such as Berlin and Toronto celebrate Indian cinema while others such as Cannes barely acknowledge its existence.
Sure, many of these movies are mediocre; others are plain bad. About the same batting average, I reckon, for American cinema. Yet Indian cinema is followed throughout Southern Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, once upon a time in the Soviet Union and nowadays gaining adherents in places such as London and Toronto.
But not in the U.S.
There are good Indian film festivals in Los Angeles and New York but Indian films get none of the celebrity news coverage and critical acclaim accorded Chinese cinema.
Why is this?
These films are certainly no more “foreign” than Chinese although admittedly no great Indian auteurs on the scale of such Chinese directors as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-wai have emerged to woo critics.
American distributors resolutely avoid Indian films or subjects believing they’re not commercial. Even Sony Pictures Classics never takes any chances unless, in one recent and rare occasion, they are involved in the early stages and with Western crew members to make a film such as “The Lunchbox.”
Indian companies distributing Indian films contribute to this dreary situation by ghettoizing their films in “Indian cinema,” refusing to venture into American art houses. When I was chief film critic at the Hollywood Reporter I could not even get Indian distributors to press screen movies for my critic in the Bay Area ahead of time.
So what passes for Indian content in American movie houses are such decidedly international movies as “Monsoon Wedding,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” that little charmer “Bend It Like Beckham” (albeit with a British accent) and the one Indian film nominated for a foreign language Oscar in recent memory, “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.”
What a shame we’re deprived of this fountainhead of terrific storytelling.
Which brings us to “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” A sequel to 2012’s very successful international hit, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the film takes place again almost entirely in India but — hello — it’s a British film with an all-star cast of British actors such as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and — hey it’s “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel, who by the way is British too.
I guess American studios and distributors feel Americans will feel more comfortable with this new Raj, an India populated by Brits and Indians playing out scenarios that feel universal and homogeneous with white bread substituted for naan and a frankfurter for a frankie.
So instead of a great Indian story you get a tale made up by Brits — director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), writer Ol Parker (who also wrote the first film, an adaptation of a novel by Deborah Moggach) — starring a bunch of Brits who shake their head over quaint Indian customs and characters but carry on more or less as if they never left Hampstead Village.
The damn thing is that Indian storytelling magic rubs off enough for it to work. It’s nearly as good as the original film and is a genuine sequel, carrying on the characters and their problems with aging and relationships in an amusing way.
It even tries to bring its Indian characters, who were fairly peripheral in the original, into the story lines more. Taking a cue from “Monsoon Wedding,” the sequel floats around the impending nuptials of Patel’s character, Sonny Kapoor, to his intended, the lovely Sunaina (Tina Desai).
During all these preparations, he struggles to expand his retirement hotel for expats into a second such building with the help of Smith’s Muriel Donnelly. She inexplicably knows venture capitalists in San Diego who might finance such an operation.
Subplots drive the new story with Nighy’s Douglas and Dench’s Evelyn (again inexplicably) dithering over whether to commence a real relationship. At their age why the hemming and hawing? Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are fooling around with fooling around instead of — again — getting on with what seems like a good thing.
Then there’s Madge (Celia Imrie) who is dating two gentlemen and satisfied with neither and Richard Gere shows up as the mysterious Guy Chambers, who sets his sights on Sonny’s mom, Mrs. Kapoor (Indian star Lillete Dubey).
Some of these subplots are contrived and others a bit less so but the beautiful milieu of Rajasthan does its magic. You do enjoy yourself. The film even breaks out into a dance sequence near the end although more “Slumdog” than Bollywood in its choreography.
I can only say you’ll enjoy yourself much more with a real Indian movie. Good luck trying to find one though. Meanwhile we have “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Opens: March 6, 2015 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation in association with Participant Media, Imagenation Abu Dhabi of a Blueprint Pictures production
Cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Richard Gere, Tina Desai, David Strathairn, Diana Hardcastle, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Greig, Shazad Latif
Director: John Madden
Screenwriter: Ol Parker
Based on a screen story by: Ol Parker, John Madden
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, John Madden, Michael Dreyer
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Martin Childs
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Louise Stjernsward
Editor: Victoria Boydell
PG rating, 122 minutes