Here’s a curious idea. If things such as call centres have been outsourced to developing countries for financial reasons, how about taking it a step further and outsourcing care, by sending older people to countries such as India to retire?
It’s a thought that sprung to author Deborah Moggach’s mind, and turned into her book These Foolish Things, the central story revolving around an entrepreneur who sets up a retirement home in India. The film adaptation called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens this month. Directed by John Madden, best known for Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown, it boasts a stellar cast of a certain age, including Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup. They play a motley collection of pensioners who find themselves facing an uncertain retirement in England. For various financial reasons all are persuaded, or in some cases obliged, to embark on an unsure future in a ramshackle guest house in India, where their care has been ‘outsourced’.
The filming took place 70 miles outside Udaipur in Rajasthan, where a local tribal chief’s palace had been transformed by Madden’s team into a down-at-heel metropolitan hotel-cum-care-home. For the street scenes in Jaipur, the camera crew quickly gave up any idea of trying to control the madding crowds. In India you just have to go with the flow and dive in with no second takes.
Filming was, by all accounts, a big experience on many fronts, from the searing heat and affable mayhem of rural Rajasthan right up to the off-set debates provoked by the inescapable relevance of the subject matter itself: retirement.
‘I don’t really want to retire,’ said 77-year-old Dame Judi Dench firmly. ‘I intend to go on working as long as I can because I still have a huge amount of energy. I’m certainly not ready to be packed away somewhere and told to put my feet up and go to bed at a certain time.
‘As anyone who’s visited one of these homes knows, you just cannot put people into a circle of chairs and have them watching television all day – it’s inhumane. After my father died and Michael [Williams, her late husband] and I got married, we bought a house in Warwickshire and we and my Ma and Michael’s parents all lived together. It’s the way they do things in the Mediterranean countries and of course in India, but by the very nature of what it is, it’s not easy. However, the pluses outweigh the disadvantages by a considerable margin. For example, my daughter now remembers her grandparents very vividly and fondly.’
For Celia Imrie, a youthful 59, retirement is also not on the cards: ‘But if I wasn’t doing the job I’m doing, I think somewhere like the Marigold Hotel would be a wonderful way to while away your later days.
‘Just stay young! As far as I’m concerned, for both audience and actors alike, the secret to longevity is laughter – I think that’s what keeps us going, even if we’re playing a serious role.’
Tom Wilkinson, 63, also counted his blessings about being an actor: ‘The good thing about this profession is that you can continue acting as long as they cast old people in movies. And the good thing about getting older is that you realise every day that you’re a long time dead and you’d better get on with it in the here and now.’
The fictional notion of outsourcing older people to care abroad is not, said Moggach, as mad as it sounds. ‘There’s a respect for the elderly in India that has largely disappeared in this country; you’re called “auntie” and “uncle”, people are nice to you, and teenagers haven’t been demonised as they have been here to the extent that older people are fearful to venture onto the streets.
‘From a practical point of view, travel is so scandalously inexpensive that it costs as much to fly out there as it does to buy a first-class rail ticket to Manchester. Children and grandchildren could visit their relatives as cheaply as going to Worthing on a wet Thursday.’
Life imitating art
Her idea gave rise to a rare instance of life imitating art. When I joined Deborah Moggach in India we were taken out to dinner by a property developer anxious for her input into his plans to build a retirement home he acknowledged was modelled on her book.
‘And after the book came out I was contacted by some other people who were setting up their first retirement complex outside Mumbai. They were very interested in what I’d written about reciprocal pension and medical arrangements. I gave a little speech at their inaugural cocktail party, but later had to explain to the Interior Minister that I had just made it all up… but I was sure “something could be worked out”!’ Hardly any of the cast had been to India before. ‘I’d never even wanted to go there,’ admitted Judi Dench. ‘But as E M Forster wrote, once you’ve been, it will change your life for ever… The people handle the poverty with such grace. But when you stop the car and there are children doing somersaults beside you, whatever you choose to give is like a drop in the ocean of all that humanity, so you just do what you can do, and if that’s giving someone some crisps or a banana out of the window… well, it doesn’t help the situation much but it salves your conscience.
‘Driving to the set one day we saw this huge, colourfully decorated lorry upside down in the middle of the road, like a beetle on its back. They tear along these pot-holed roads at breakneck speeds and suddenly a cow will calmly walk out and they have to swerve into oncoming traffic which is going just as fast. But,’ she adds, ‘you do get used to it.’
Poverty and wealth
‘What I wasn’t prepared for,’ said Tom Wilkinson, ‘were the incredible extremes of working in India. The contrast between poverty and wealth, and the squalor and chaos. I felt uncomfortable with it for a lot of the time. It felt like there was a certain sense of despair, for although the country is a democracy, and one of the duties of democracy is supposed to be to lift people out of poverty, there seemed to be no evidence of that.’
‘I did find the contrast between wealth and poverty quite hard to take,’ agreed Imrie. ‘There’s no answer to it and I don’t want to sound patronising.
‘The huge hotels do employ a lot of people and on the set there were all the little boys running around giving us bottles of water, so we did give them work. And it does teach you the ludicrousness of materialism.’ It also teaches you the importance of effective food hygiene. The set doctor freely dispensed copious quantities of little pink pills to avert the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’. The risk of this to the cast and so the entire enterprise was ever-present, and no one was allowed to eat anything washed or cooked in local water. Both Bill and Tom (and this writer) succumbed – luckily without too much interruption to the schedule. And the message with which they returned home? Ronald Pickup, 71, answers: ‘The film as a whole proves there is hope for everyone, but without a ‘happily ever after’ ending. Instead, the characters achieve a new kind of wisdom, and energy, as a consequence of their experiences. And that’s very life-affirming.’
These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach is £9 on the Saga Bookshop.