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The Sights
The allure of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starts with its location - in the middle of Rajasthan, one of the most romantic of India's states, a kaleidoscopic place replete with ornate temples, ancient kingdoms and colorful saris, all alongside the dizzying pace of rapidly modernizing cities. The surroundings the residents find on arrival are certainly every bit as lush and exotic as one could imagine - but equally overwhelming and incomprehensible to life-long British residents, resulting in instant culture shock.

In the script, Ol Parker and John Madden had made the most of the natural tension that arises from transplanting people set in their ways to a place that requires a whole new way of being. But the real surprises were yet to come, as the cast and crew began to experience their own passage to India, which had a profound impact on every one of them.

E.M. Forster noted that 'once you've visited India, your life is never the same,' and for the cast this was also the case. Says Bill Nighy: "Most of us had never been to India before, and since most of our characters hadn't either, the experience was similarly profound. The major thing you notice is the graciousness of the people and the way we were welcomed in the most wonderful way."

Judi Dench was equally moved by the people she met, and loved the surprises of each day in India. "It's not often in life that you can return to your digs in the evening after a day of work and find elephants walking by," she muses.

For Celia Imrie, who had traveled through India 20 years ago, it was a reawakening. "There wasn't anything I didn't enjoy about every single day there," she muses. "It is an enchanting place in every way, a country both poor and rich, with such energy, enthusiasm and joy everywhere."

Adds Ronald Pickup: "I can only quote something Judi Dench said on our fourth or fifth day here . . . 'India is a constant assault on your senses and on everything you've taken for granted.' It's a place full of contrasts and it does change you. It's an experience unlike any other in the world - one that is at times thrilling, ravishing, shocking and full of every aspect of life."

Madden collaborated with cinematographer Ben Davis, who had just shot THE DEBT with the director, to try to capture all of that energy and teeming humanity on the screen. They did not want to shoot a postcard-style India, but rather give the audience a more realistic sense of what these new arrivals might see and feel.

"There are images of India that we associate with tourist guidebooks. Those can certainly be found, but what Ben and I talked about was trying to capture the texture of Indian life the way you actually feel it," he explains. "There is so much that strikes you when you first arrive. Everything is crumbling and dilapidated and noisy and chaotic, but there is a joyousness that comes at you, and a profound sympathy and openness. Visually it's overwhelming: extraordinary fabrics and colors everywhere, and an incredible sense of life."

One of the first tasks in India was to find the best, most exotic environs for the actual Marigold Hotel. "The hotel is a character itself, and it was probably the most difficult to cast," says John Madden.

They knew that they wanted to set the hotel at the edge of the city of Jaipur - aka "The Pink City" -- once home to Raj rulers but now a frenetic metropolis jammed with an ever-increasing traffic mix of cars, camels, elephants, bikes and trucks streaming down its narrow streets. "We explored different areas of India, and settled on Jaipur because the culture, the colors and the atmosphere are all so overpowering and oozing with energy, especially compared to the drab English winter our characters have left behind," explains Graham Broadbent.

As for the hotel itself, the filmmakers ultimately chose Ravla Khempur, a royal palace turned equestrian hotel that is attached to the tiny village of Khempur just outside the scenic lake district of Udaipur. "The palace was built around a courtyard, with grand verandas from which the tribal chief's harem could survey the world, with lots of different levels and vantage points, and a slightly mad quality... Crucially, the building had a magic about it, and an unmistakable charm," explains Madden. "It had that something special that could ultimately draw the characters in. It had these wonderful cool dark interiors, with glimpses of saturated light and the teeming life outside its walls."

The task of decorating the hotel with all the ambition and naiveté of Sonny Kapoor fell to production designer Alan MacDonald, whose films include Stephen Frears' THE QUEEN and CHERI. MacDonald says Sonny was his inspiration throughout. "Once you understand Sonny, you can visualize the quirkiness and eccentricity of the hotel. His aspiration is to have a boutique hotel, but that is not his taste," laughs the designer. "He is a living culture clash, facing his past and embracing his future, and that's how we decorated the hotel. Lots of interesting furniture inspired by colonial India, mismatched local textiles, all mixed together with modern plastic bits and pieces, with everything distressed and weather beaten."

The owner of Ravla Khempur, who caters mainly to Indian tourists, was so pleased with the rooms built for Madge and Evelyn on the balcony, and Norman's eyrie on the roof, that he decided to keep the structures in place and use them for his guests.

Around the hotel, MacDonald recreated a lively, Jaipur-style market. "Outside the real building was just a dirt track, so first we laid a road, and then we built a bustling Indian market from scratch," he explains. "My research in Jaipur showed me that everything is mixed up in India - the architecture, the colours, the textures, so I put together a living collage in layers. We built shop fronts, and went to the local town and moved shopkeepers and their wares to Khempur, adding bikes, camels, goats and cows. There is a sense of chaos and order at the same time."

Filming also took place in the center of Jaipur, around the City Palace, the Marigold market, on the crowded city buses and in the highrise call center, from which a vast expanse of the city can be seen. On the outskirts of the city, locations included the Kanota Fort which stood in for the Viceroy Club where both Madge and Norman hope to meet new partners. When young lovers Sonny and Sunaina meet, he takes her to the Step Well, a 10th century watering spot surrounded by ten stories of pale golden stone steps, creating a visual maze in which one never ascends or descends by the same route.

The shoot quickly took on Indian rhythms, as filming navigated around some major Indian festivals and holidays that took place during production. Before shooting began, a local holy man performed a puja, a blessing on the cast, crew and even on camera equipment. Only delicate diplomacy allowed the cast to avoid playing their first scenes with red bindi marks on their foreheads without offending local traditions. Director and cast were invited by the Maharaja of Udaipur, His Royal Highness Arvind Singh Mewar, to attend his lavish Diwali celebrations, including a bagpipe welcome and a fireworks display that illuminated the surrounding lake and the whole city. They also accepted invitations to a royal wedding, replete with elephants and rock stars mingling with the high society of India on the grounds of the Rambagh Palace Hotel.

But it was on the streets of Jaipur that both cast and filmmakers received endless inspiration.


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