Judi Dench, Celia Imrie and director John Madden talk about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Imrie, who returns as the 60-something maneater Madge, delights in the fact that the films acknowledge that 'romantic' feelings don’t necessarily wither with age.

From left, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Fox Searchlight Films
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Even at this stage of her career, the veteran British actress Judi Dench never has any expectations about how well a film will perform.

But even she must have been pleasantly surprised when the 2011 India-set comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made almost US$140 million (Dh514m) worldwide.

After all, most of the stars – Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup and Tom Wilkinson – were in their 60s and 70s, and playing their age. Dev Patel and Tena Desai provided youth, but it was the veteran thespians who had the lion’s share of screen time.

To everyone's amazement, they're back in a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

“I don’t think that in John’s [Madden, the director] or anybody’s wildest dreams did they imagine there would be a sequel,” says Dench, who is now 80. “It was only because of the first film’s unexpected success that they decided there would be another one.”

If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel proved anything, it is that there's an audience for more mature films. It was probably there all along, but had just never been seriously tapped.

“What films have been made about people of our age – old?” asks Dench. “Not many.”

She puts part of the first film’s success down to the fact that the characters who had swapped life in England for bustling Jaipur were grabbing life and living it to the full rather than shuffling resignedly into their dotage.

“These were people who’d taken their destiny into their own hands and refused to be put in a pigeonhole,” says Dench.

Celia Imrie, who returns as the 60-something maneater Madge, delights in the fact that the films acknowledge that “romantic” feelings don’t necessarily wither with age.

“I think it’s marvellous,” she says. “In movies, romance is usually over by 35, which is absolute nonsense. [Madge] is a glorious, freeing example of how life can go on. And since we’re all now living to about 105 these days, you might as well keep going.”

The films are proof, too, of how much we could have been missing because of the focus of the movie industry, and especially Hollywood, on youth. Dench has never been out of work, although much of her career has been on the stage and on television in Britain.

“I never wanted to make any films,” she admits. “I was told very early on I wouldn’t, because I didn’t look right. But I thought: ‘Oh, that’s lucky, because I don’t actually want to make any films.’ But now it has changed and I do get sent a lot of stuff.”

Despite what she calls her “extremely good luck”, Dench believes there’s still a dearth of good roles for actresses of a certain age. And while she’d like to take more risks, and continually do new things, the opportunities aren’t always there.

“What I want to do is play this foreign woman who learns to walk a tightrope and gets turned into a dragon in the last act,” she says. “Or I want to play a female racing driver. That’s what I want to do. Something I haven’t had to do before. But where are these parts?”

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel certainly finds her well within her comfort zone as the widow Evelyn, who now works buying cloth and is being tentatively romanced by Nighy. Meanwhile, Sonny (Patel), the hotel's skittish owner, is preparing to marry his sweetheart, Sunaina (Desai), while newcomer Richard Gere may or may not be a hotel inspector who could make or break Sonny's plan to expand his business with a second hotel.

A vein of melancholia runs through the movie's latter section as the characters confront inevitable questions of mortality. But the last thing Madden – who reunites with Dench for the fourth time on the film (after the first Marigold Hotel movie, Mrs Brown in 1997 and 1998's Shakespeare in Love) – wants people to call the The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is heart-warming.

“I can’t bear that,” he says. “If any film of mine is called that it makes me want to run for cover. Of course everybody wants to feel good in a film, but a feel-good film is not something I aspire to make. We didn’t set out to do that at all.”

For him, the most important image comes towards the end, when the characters ride away from the camera on motorbikes.

“It’s like they’re sailing out of life because they will die,” he says. “That’s what the film is saying – they will die but they leave something behind.

“The older you get, the more powerful that idea becomes. Continuity becomes what it’s all about.”

Whether this is the last we’ve seen of these characters remains to be seen. The sequel has topped the United Kingdom box-office chart for three weeks and earned $47 million, attesting to the appeal of the classy cast.

Imrie says she would return for a third film.

“But truthfully, part of me thinks it’s so pure and crystal-like, do we need to do any more?” she asks. “I’m a great believer in stopping while everybody’s loving it.”