Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes): 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' director John Madden on filming in India

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Image Credit: Ishika Mohan

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden, dunks seven veteran British actors — Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, and Celia Imrie — into the hot, steamy inner sanctum of India, playing retirees who take up residence at an old hotel more dilapidated than originally advertised. Madden tells EW about the experience filming in and outside the Indian cities of Jaipur and Udaipur, from the heat on set to the difficulty of getting sound and the right shots as crowds flocked around the cast and crew.

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As told by: John Madden

We chose to film in [the Indian state of ] Rajasthan. The book says in Bangalore. We thought Rajasthan was a more visual area to set the story in, because of the textures and color and intensity of the place. I was very keen to depict India in a certain way, the way you see it in the film, versus the way India is portrayed in the travel brochures: the architecture, the spirituality. There’s a sheer breathtaking, mind-boggling chaos that you’re thrown into. The characters in the film are under the mercy of Dev Patel, who runs the hotel. The intention was to assault their senses; the phrase the Judi Dench character uses in the film.

The hotel, which is the key character in the film, the character that gives the film its title, was quite a particular casting challenge. Finding a hotel with particular qualities, both alarming and reassuring, was a difficult task. We split the story between two cities, Jaipur and Udaipur. The hotel is in Jaipur, and most of the story is in Jaipur. As the story unfolds, they go to Udaipur and they bury their friend. The Jaipar hotel where we filmed is a former chieftain’s palace in Khanpur, about an hour and a half outside of Udaipur. We built Jaipur around it, and the street outside it, and markets, to place the palace in the middle of Jaipur. But that was an hour and a half journey in the morning and in the evening, in darkness, since the cast and crew were living in Udaipur. It was a bit scary to travel that. We shot for about four weeks in the palace, in the hotel, and a little in Udaipur, for the part that relates to the funeral. Then we transported the unit to Jaipur, the pink city, a huge massively sprawling metropolis, and shot all the material in the street, the Viceroy club, various other locations. Udaipur is an ancient city, a city surrounded by lakes and reservoirs to trap the monsoon water to drink and for agriculture. It’s dilapidated rubbing up next to modern India. It’s a culture screaming contrast. There’s widespread poverty, and people living on very little, but also expanding exponentially.

It was incredibly challenging, with the crowds. It’s impossible to control crowds. You get a huge untamable mass of people doing their thing, and they all stop to watch filming. They have a film industry that dwarfs Hollywood. I wanted to grab life as it is, not set it up. You have to devise strategies to hide yourself and move amongst the people. We improvised within an environment, places to put the cameras, and let life go on around us. It more or less worked.

In some places, we built our own market places. In India, anything and everything goes. You need a production designer with a brilliant eye, and incredibly good buyers. There were only about 20 European crew members, mostly heads of department. The sound department was entirely Indian.… The cinematography department was all Indian. Although the movie is about seven British people going to India, everyone else in the movie is Indian, and we cast those parts in India, in Mumbai mainly, and locally.

We had an Oscar-winning Indian sound recorder, from Slumdog Millionaire. Sound is very hard to record. It’s cacophonous. It’s not usually an issue in Indian films, since it’s dubbed. In the hotel, the only sound we had to contend with was nature, chattering squirrels. In the city, you’re dealing with a constant cacophony of car horns, endless noise. The station where they arrive at the end of the film, we were filming around real life, because we couldn’t control it. Judi Dench was recognized as M. in James Bond, and Maggie Smith from the Harry Potter films.

We planned very carefully, times to film. There were only two times in the year we could film there, where it’s temperate enough: the late fall and early spring. We started filming mid-October, and came back to England the beginning of December. It gets cooler as you get toward Christmas. It was crippling heat, towering heat. I decided we should go with it. We didn’t powder the actors. There’s almost a perfect overlap between the characters of the story and the actors making it — most of them hadn’t been there before. Except the hotel they were in was a higher caliber.

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