Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Late to the party, as ever, my partner and I watched Outsourced (2006) last night, and thought it was pretty delightful.

Todd (Josh Hamilton), a Seattle call-center manager, discovers that the jobs of his entire department have been outsourced to India, and he is asked to go to there to train his replacement. At first, predictably, things don't go well. Todd is overwhelmed by the crowds, noise and poverty—not to mention the intestinal distress from unwisely sampling a street vendor's gola ganda. He's unfamiliar with Indian customs and practices, and makes more than a few embarrassing mistakes. The call center turns out to be in a raw, unfinished building and the crew is hopeless at pretending that they're from "Chicahgo" as they try to sell Americans cheap patriotic figurines made in China.

But Todd is a resilient, practical guy. When he exasperatedly tells the crew, "You have a lot to learn about America," and Asha (the terrific Ayesha Dharker from Loins of Punjab Presents) responds, "And you have a lot to learn about India," he realizes that she's right. The rest of the film follows Todd's deepening involvement in the lives of his Indian neighbors and co-workers, and his and Asha's growing mutual attraction. And fortunately, although writer/director John Jeffcoat's script does stretch our credulity a few times, it's smart enough to leave some important questions unresolved.

And there are some pointed asides about American lifestyles, as well. Through the eyes of the Indian characters it's clear that we look like we're isolated and atomized, filling our emotional voids with an addiction to cheap junk and oversized appliances. After his weeks in India, Todd's Seattle apartment seems huge, and his refrigerator and microwave look like artifacts from a technologically-advanced alien civilization.

Josh Hamilton is not my idea of a man that would set a desi girl's heart aflutter, but he's perfectly cast as the go-getting but fundamentally good-hearted Todd. And while I see that Ayesha Dharker works steadily, mostly in British TV, on the basis of Loins and Outsourced I'm not sure why she isn't besieged with good film roles.

The message of Outsourced is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences. That's also the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), which features an ensemble cast of acclaimed British actors. A group of retirees (including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy) come to live at the hotel, which they've been led to believe is a glorious palace but which is now decidedly run down. The film follows the accommodations that each character chooses (or refuses) to make with their new circumstances. The film is also the story of Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire), the hotel's visionary but inexperienced owner-manager who has to battle his own family to realize his dreams of resurrecting the hotel and of marrying the woman he loves.

My one hesitation about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel relates to this narrative, though, and there's no way to discuss it without spoilers. So you've been warned: spoilers ahead! Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a housekeeper with racist attitudes who has come to India for a cheaper hip replacement than she can get at home. While she's recovering, she comes to realize that the hotel could succeed with better management. At the end of the film we see her acting as the manager of the newly renovated hotel, with Sonny reduced to standing in the lobby in traditional dress and showing guests to their rooms. Essentially, he's become a figurehead in his own hotel.

I'd like to think that writer Ol Parker and director John Madden were being deliberately ironic, but somehow I can't quite believe it. Or perhaps the fault lies with the source, Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things (Chatto & Windus, 2004). Wherever the blame lies, the film ends on a note that seems to recapitulate the colonialist ideology of the Raj: that the British know how to run India (for the benefit of Britons, anyway) better than the Indians themselves.

—End of spoilers—

It's the one sour note in a film that for 99% of its length is about the wisdom of accepting India on its own terms. But don't let a misstep in the final moments dissuade you from watching these wonderful actors in what is, for the most part, a very enjoyable story.

Next on our viewing list: the Outsourced television series.

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