Three years ago, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden, became an unexpected global hit, grossing nearly $137m at the box office worldwide. It was a tale of retirees wanting a better, cheaper life in Jaipur, northern India.
On arrival they found a charming, haphazard manager (Sonny, played by Dev Patel) but a crumbling building, far from the glossy property that had been sold to them.
Corralling a stellar cast – alongside Judi Dench are Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith – back to Rajasthan for the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel wasn’t difficult. Dench told The Telegraph: “I couldn’t wait to get back. It was like those places you go to in your childhood and think won’t be the same, but it was, only better.”
But some of the characters aren’t so sure. “How can you bear this country?” asks Jean (Penelope Wilton) in the first film, after she finds it hot, dirty and noisy. But by the second, Evelyn (played by Dench) is convinced. “India, like life itself I suppose, is about what you bring to it,” she muses.
Madden, best known for 1999’s Shakespeare In Love, is hugely fond of the country. Having spent seven years with his wife in the state of Rajasthan doing research for the films, he calls it ‘very special’. The Marigold building itself started life as a chief’s palace, and is now a hotel and equestrian centre, located an hour and a half outside Jaipur.
In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Madden has said he prefers to call it a “companion piece”, because the films “organically belong to one another”), the cast is back and Sonny is hoping to open another property, with the help of Muriel (Maggie Smith).
Joining them are Douglas (Nighy) and Madge (Imrie), who swoons over new arrival Guy, played by Richard Gere.
Guy was a character that evolved as it was written by Madden and screen writer Ol Parker. “When we started to write the character, we did not even know what gender that character would be.
“Then we fastened on to a certain kind of quality that the actor would have, and therefore [Gere’s] name came into our heads fairly early on,” Madden says.
Gere has a long affinity with India: he set up a foundation supporting humanitarian schemes in the country in 1999, and rumour had it that he asked to be in the second Marigold film. But Madden corrects this: “We didn’t show him the script until we had finished it and then we said: ‘Would you consider playing this?’ and it turned out that he was a very big fan of the first film.”
So with such a cast, many of whom are friends, what was the atmosphere like when filming? “There’s no pomposity on set, because people take the mickey out of each other,” he says.
“Sometimes corralling them and getting them to shut up is a little bit of an issue. The truth is, with English actors, because they work across so many media – film, television, radio, theatre – you are constantly crossing paths with these actors.
“The director’s job in this situation is to get the script right and make sure they understand exactly what each scene is doing, to provide a kind of physical circumstance, a shooting pattern that is going to deliver that. Then you get out of the way because they are all geniuses at what they do.”
Shining a light on an older demographic – the parents of Generation High50 – was important to Madden. “It’s a huge demographic slumbering, it’s just a case of getting people to wake up to it, and it helps people to understand what older people are thinking and feeling,” he says.
The films reached a larger audience than Madden had anticipated. “Blockbusters tend to focus on the 17 to 25-year-old demographic: it is the young that are the engine that drives the movies. But this appealed to an older demographic and below.”
Would Madden himself retire to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? “There’s something to be said for people living together in old age, where you have several families there together,” he says.
As Dench’s character states in the sequel: “How many new lives can we have? As many as we like.”
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 29 June 2015.