If you were to ask me what my favourite kind of story was, my answer would be an ensemble. I know that’s a really great “none” answer, a way to get around the question, a way to say I like all stories. But it’s the best way to demonstrate the kind of stories that attract me most – stories that don’t just revolve around one person or hero – although I do enjoy and learn from my superman, lone gunmen stories, I just think there is more within ensemble pieces, and it’s a way to weave numerous stories together. And I like several stories woven together, stories that have both contrasting and complementary themes, and an ensmble demonstrates community – which in the end is the real core of storytelling. The other thing I like about ensemble stories is the complex, the messy, the complicated – the absolute drama of folks bumping into one another with their own stories, and sometimes it’s a crash and sometimes it’s not (the film Crash looks at this idea – we’ll come back to it another day) and sometimes it’s entaglements and awkwardness. And those things are all okay, they’re part of community, they’re part of passion, the drama that people involve us in is a sign that they actually care. If you don’t want drama in your life, then you’re never going to experience real love or real community.
And yes, okay I feel extra proud when I’m presented with a British Story with a British Ensemble, and when you see an ensemble like the one which shares the story of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel well, that’s just story gold.
Here we have a melting pot (or salad – with a melting pot, distinctiveness is lost, but with a salad the individual tastes still stand out) of stories . There are at least four contrasting love stories; there are coming of age stories, fish out of water stories, comic stories; stories of anger, fear and hate; stories where people understand and misunderstand. All these tied up in the wonder and alienation of another culture which is in itself is a metaphor for advancing age: consider the strange new world that old age really is – but also at what stage we consider ourselves and those around us as old. Reaching that state of retirement is to many of us like going to another country and finding a completely different culture – and I’m sure there are many who wish we could just send the “old and inconvenient” away to another country, that way they’re out from under our feet, and out of sight (so they don’t remind us of what’s coming to US).
Different cultures shine a light into our souls Having your whole life transplanted to a different culture is disturbing, sometimes painful and utterly disorienting. But it’s also liberating, eye opening, casting light not just on ourselves but on those around us who matter. It brings new people in your life who matter; it reminds you of who and what is important in your life – the loves and relationships of the past that really should matter. Encountering others whose attitudes are utterly different to our own (which is essentially what another culture is) brings into focus both our negative and positive attitudes and habits that we hold on to.
And as we’re shown in this beautiful story, there are different ways for us to deal with the insights about ourselves, those we love and our surroundings – ways in which we can either change, adapt or retreat. We can completely embrace the new way of thinking, throw ourselves totally into the new atmosphere and culture, accept that newness and abandon all that was good from our past along with the stuff we are rightly rejecting; or we can retreat into ourselves, be repulsed by what we find in this new world, hold on to the bad and good that we are used to, choose to stew in our own bitterness, anger and desperation simply because it’s familiar; Or we can steer a middle course, develop our true selves, letting kindness and graciousness blossom, turning away from anger but also accept the new experiences and attitudes, attitudes of thankfulness, acceptance, the wonder, the realisation that deep down we’re all the same. I would hope that I would steer that middle course, and pray the same for you.
Unconditional Kindness makes a cold heart melt Seeing the change come over one particular character – the Maggie Smith character, a lady who needs a new hip and who starts the story as an odious racist with prejudices filling her life – is always something that has made me smile each time in experiencing this story. By the end, through the kindness shown to her and by her (albeit unknowingly) and by simply being an observer of the events of the lives of the others, not only is she a happy resident of the hotel and friend of the locals, but she brings her experience, knowledge, wisdom and yes kindness and graciousness from her old life into her new life and chooses to share all that in service to the very people she previously disdained. Oh yes, continual and unabated kindness is a powerful weapon against hatred, indifference and prejudice.
The interweaving love stories – slow breakdown of a marriage, re-awakening of affection, stumbling into an ‘almost’ affair, young love overcoming family objections, a simple guy meets girl and a love that despite being torn apart by convention, family and circumstance still survived was reunited and finally understood – are just the beginning of showing us the complexity of love. Perhaps the most touching of the love stories and relateable for me was the lost love of Graham. A love that overcame him in youth, but didn’t have the strength to defend. And he moved on. Yes, he moved on. But stayed devoted for forty years. He became a High Court Judge, successful, driven, focussed. But still, his heart was with the boy he had left behind in India. And the search for him ended with an embrace and the discovery that 40 years and thousands of miles cannot dim real love. That happy marriage to another for his Indian love did not mean Manoj’s heart was not still completely his. It beautiful and sad. The waste of living without their soulmate is criminal, and all because of, what? The ‘done thing’? the right thing? Is leaving true love ever the right thing? Oh my friends, if you see it, grab it and hold on. never let go. But if circumstance gets in the way, like Graham and Manoj, know that even after 40 years it is never too late. Never give up on that love.
And of course the whole story takes place in the context of a community – that’s why ensembles work and are the best kind of stories – because they have at their heart the same thing that lies at the heart of all truly great stories – Community. Embrace your Ensemble story my friends, and within that ensemble you’ll find the strength to deal with your own prejudices, to uncover your own cold heart, to connect with and never give up on Love.