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Tom Wilkinson plays cricket—but life doesn't—in the streets of Jaipur

The best gift grownup movie lovers have gotten so far this year is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the warm, funny, thoughtful story of seven British retirees who move to crowded, colorful Jaipur, India. They’re lured there by a brochure promising a life of inexpensive luxury at the titular hotel, but what they find is a run-down wreck of a place set amidst teeming crowds, abject poverty, and sometimes brutally primitive living conditions.

For the Britons—played by Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy among others—the new surroundings take some getting used to. And Tom Wilkinson knows precisely how they feel.

Wilkinson plays Graham Dashwood, a retired judge who’s returning to India after 40-some years. Dashwood grew up in Jaipur, but left with his family under mysterious circumstances—the revelation of which provides one of the film’s most poignant moments.

"Marigold's" British expats get less than they bargained for.

Wilkinson’s judge is supposedly the character most at home in the bustling streets of Jaipur, but the two-time Oscar nominee confessed to me they took some getting used to during his eight weeks of filming.

“Have you ever been to India?” he asks me (and the answer is no). “Well, it’s a handful of an experience, that’s for sure true. I hadn’t been there before and it was my first real experience of culture shock.”

Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) takes time to show modern India emerging as an economic powerhouse. New construction is everywhere in Jaipur, and we see almost as many people working in offices as in outdoor huts. But Madden doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of a nation that has always struggled with class and economic divisions.

“It’s the most amazing place, and not all good,” Wilkinson says. “I mean, there are some fantastic things about it, but you’re aware all the time of this great contrast between incredible wealth and astounding poverty. And it’s something I could never quite get comfortable with, particularly when you were reading in the newspapers, almost daily, stories of political corruption.

“I mean, the poor people in England, they’re not living in clover that’s for sure, but what they’re not doing is sitting out in the street doing their washing in puddles in the road!”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is much more than a travelogue, however—the film also explores the plight of older people who struggle with economic pressures as well as feelings of irrelevance.

Judi Dench and Celia Imrie arrive at the Marigold Hotel.

“It’s a remarkable choice that these people in the film make,” says Wilkinson. “Most people, I think, as they get older want to retreat to some sort of comfort zone. People have a real, terrible fear of getting old. But the people in this movie take this extraordinary gamble, in my view, of going somewhere where they haven’t a clue of what’s going on.”

I suggest to Wilkinson that much of the appeal of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel comes from the way it taps into a universal human desire, at any age, to explore and expand your world. But he doesn’t really buy that.

“Is that true?” he challenges me. “Is that true that there’s a universal desire? I think it is very odd what these people have decided to do.

“Of course, for the purposes of the movie it’s better for them to go to India than, say, Belgium.  But I think it’s an extraordinarily brave thing.

“If there is a message for people embarking on the adventure—let’s call it that—of old age, then it’s probably that it requires more courage than you’ve ever had in your life.”

Wilkinson stops himself. He seems to fear he’s getting a little speechy. But it’s refreshing to hear an actor—or anyone in show business, really—speak honestly and openly about the whole notion that getting older is not for sissies. I thank him for his time.

“It’s a pleasure,” he says. “I’m sorry I was a bit boring. Well, a lot boring!”

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