The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – a film about migrants?

Published 19 February 2013 / By Mikal Mast

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When you work at COMPAS, you begin to think that everything is about migrants. Even popular films, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which are ostensibly about anything but migrants.

There is often a double standard about who we term migrants. People in the developing world who move to the developed world to work, study, or join family are called migrants, while people from the developed world who move –whether to developed or developing countries – are called expats.  This distinction does not just affect terminology – there is also the assumption that citizens of the developed world are not restricted by government immigration policy to the same extent as citizens of developing countries. There is also an assumption that people from the developing world are mainly interested in becoming migrants in the developed world because they want to access the social welfare state, including our advanced health care systems.

The recent film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a group of British retirees move to India for economic and health reasons, both demonstrated and upended these expectations.

Medical tourism and work visas

Photo by Jose Pires

Muriel, played by Maggie Smith, travelled to India specifically to access quicker and cheaper health care. In what I found to be a not entirely explicable reversal, instead of waiting for treatment from a non-white doctor in the UK, she agreed to go to India for treatment. She gave the impression of being a wee bit racist, but to be charitable, perhaps she merely believed that Indian doctors should stay in their own country.

The fact is, the UK National Health System is heavily reliant on migrant labour for both high wage doctors and low wage nurses and carers. And in fact, many Indian doctors do stay home, contributing to a growing array of highly sophisticated healthcare facilities in India, serving an ever larger population of medical tourists.

I found the healthcare narrative strand of the film encouraging, in that it emphasized the contribution that migrants have made to the UK healthcare system, and also highlighted the development of healthcare facilities in India. Also, it was not just propagating the usual old traditional and ‘exotic’ India narrative (though there was plenty of that).

Other narrative strands were not so encouraging.

A second female character, Evelyn, played by Judi Dench, moved to India specifically for economic reasons – her husband has frittered away their savings, at his death leaving her almost destitute. Once she gets to India, things become quite desperate (horror of horror, she might have to move back to England to live with her children!) until she manages to land a job teaching English at a call centre. She will train the staff to speak idiomatic English, thus putting their retired customers, like herself, at their ease.

And as it happens, Muriel the medical tourist is also offered a job, running the very hotel in which the group is staying.

These are very sweet and heart warming developments, but one issue is never mentioned. Are these women actually entitled to work in India? Could they possibly have applied for work visas before they arrived? Or can they change their immigration status now that they have acquired jobs?

None of these thorny issues are even hinted at. Of course this is just a blockbuster, and these kinds of movies tend to leave out any details which do not contribute (however unbelievably) to the plot development. But I think it is important to interrogate the underlying assumptions in popular entertainment, because they often highlight contradictions in everyday thinking.

Specifically, if Indians are not welcome to work at whatever job they please in Britain, why should British retirees be welcome to work at whatever job they please in India?