Even if you haven’t carefully reread the works of Edward Said in anticipation of the film, it’s not hard to see the trans-cultural potential to offend in “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson’s latest about a trio of brothers’ train journey through Rajasthan.
The movie, which opens tomorrow at The Michigan Theater, is the fifth directed by Anderson, who has become a touchstone in hipster film circles. Inevitably, the question of authenticity arises when an artist creates in or about a culture not his own. A young director as closely followed – and as white – as Anderson was not going to set a film in India and get away with it easily, no matter how many Satyajit Ray films he’s seen.
Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman wrote the screenplay for “Darjeeling” while on their own trip to India, the director’s first.
“It’s not really our goal to represent the culture as it is to just share our experience, our point of view of (India) – and it’s only such a sliver,” Anderson said in a roundtable interview before a Q&A session and special screening of the film in Ann Arbor Monday night. “It’s a place where I feel there are so many surprises, and I’m so interested in learning about this place and to share my limited experiences.”
When the film’s three Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Schwartzman) arrive at their first stop, they step off the Darjeeling Limited – the fictional train that gives the movie its title – into a kind of “Picturebook India.” Although American tourists traveling in Asia for the first time are often surprised when encountering marketplaces and blinding poverty (two things usually not out in the open in the United States), the India captured in Anderson’s signature camera pans show women in tropical fruit-colored saris. The children are adorably dusty. The marketplaces are just dirty enough to be “quaint.” Anderson filmed “Darjeeling” in the region of Rajasthan – it’s not as if he could have “faked” India. But what he chooses for his film’s lush backdrop suggests a more romantic interpretation of the real.
At Monday’s interview (which also included Schwartzman and Waris Ahluwalia, who plays the Darjeeling’s surly head steward), Anderson admitted he’s “never felt more foreign” as a visitor than in India, but he also said that he’s never felt more welcomed. It’s a strange sense he feels is common among people who have traveled there.
“I feel like people who’ve visited India, if they like it, they probably really love it,” Anderson said. “And they probably go back, and it becomes something big. I feel people who spend time there, if they meet someone else who’s gone there as a visitor they feel like they’ve got something that they share that they can’t quite even express.”
Punjab-born, New York-raised Ahluwalia understands Anderson’s cinematic treatment. Ahluwalia, a jewelry designer who also appeared in the Anderson-penned “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” was born in India but grew up in New York.
“As an insider and an outsider, because I was born there but raised here, I think Wes and the writers, Jason and Roman, handled India in a beautiful nature,” he said. “They made it a character in the film.” (He joked, “I speak officially for India.”)
Perhaps the best explanation for a film that some bloggers and writers have attacked as misogynistic, racist and, at the very least, mildly Orientalist (see Jonah Weiner’s painfully titled response, “Unbearable Whiteness,” on Slate.com), is that the filmmakers intentionally made “Darjeeling” from the point of view of a blindly off-color Western tourist.
“The movie is very much about these brothers who are not even really tuned into listening to each other or paying attention to each other, much less learning about this place where they’ve gone and are meant to discover themselves in,” Anderson said. “These brothers are perhaps more close-minded, more self-absorbed than even we are, I think.”
Oldest brother Francis, Wilson’s character, for example, refers to the train attendant Schwartzman’s character fancies as “Sweet Lime.”
Early on in the film, Schwartzman’s Jack seduces Rita (a.k.a. “Sweet Lime”) in the train bathroom. There’s a Gayatri Spivak quote about imperialism – “the white man saving the brown woman from the brown man.” And if you’re familiar with Spivak, you can’t help but think of that during Jack and Rita’s on-train fling. The film tells us that Rita is using him as a reason to leave her relationship with Ahluwalia’s character, and that he’s pursuing her in an effort to forget his ex-girlfriend. “Thanks for using me,” Jack says as he leaves her, but it’s hard to believe it wasn’t mostly the other way around.
A reporter at the roundtable asked about the correlation of Jack’s mustache (an impressive, adult-film-star worthy decoration) and the character’s sexual appetite.
“I can’t answer your question head-on, but I’ll give you a side thing,” Schwartzman said, “which is that if you’re going to have a mustache, India’s the place to have it.”
People in the village where they were filming would go up to Schwartzman and tell him he had “a mustache like the maharajah”; the children called him “India Jack.”
“I liked having no shoes and a mustache, because it kind of felt like I was blending in a little bit,” he said.
There’s a danger of accidental exoticization there. India, it seems, has a certain effect on people; it’s this bare-foot embodiment of the exotic, of the spiritual. What makes Francis’s frequent, awkward proclamations not just silly but uncomfortable to watch is that a lot of Westerners do see India the way the Whitmans do.
In the film, India is simply the vehicle for which the brothers can “find themselves.” Francis’s encouragement of a made-up ritual involving peacock feathers and enforcement of prayer at “one of the most spiritual places in the world,” among other things, comes off equal parts offensive and embarrassingly endearing. When Adrien Brody’s character, middle brother Peter, talks about how the country smells (“It’s . spicy”), it seems more OK, maybe a little backward, if adorably so. But that may reflect more on Brody the actor – a new addition to the Wes Anderson film family – than Peter the character.
Perhaps the key is not to see “India” as real-world India in “The Darjeeling Limited,” but to see it as another character, to paraphrase Ahluwalia. Anderson plays with the setting just as he does other filmic devices, but in doing so, he risks turning his rosy view of India into nothing more than a caricature of the real thing. Certainly, Anderson is smart enough to have recognized the potential criticism from the likes of Slate and Shameless magazines as he was making the film. But with “Darjeeling,” he only achieves his desired result by sacrificing sensitivity for style.
What came before
“Hotel Chevalier,” the Web prologue to “The Darjeeling Limited,” is Wes Anderson’s second venture into short film. His first, the 1994 version of “Bottle Rocket,” exhibited what would become Anderson trademark – symmetry in composition, a sense of casual disconnect – in its light-hearted portrayal of the insecurities and discontentment of suburban life.
In “Hotel Chevalier,” a man (Jason Schwartzman) receives an unexpected guest, a woman who is presumably his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). Set in a Paris hotel room, there’s a certain aspect of the characters that is painfully authentic and contrived, an area over which Anderson had once displayed absolute control. The spot-on mise en sc