Darjeeling Limited : But Where is Darjeeling?

I recently had the chance of watching Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited”. I am not an Anderson fan by any sense, but few things drew me to the theater. First, I heard a lot of hoopla about Wes Anderson; second the crew included some familiar names like Lydia Dean Pilcher (the producer) and Cindy Tolan (casting director). And finally the title of the film – “Darjeeling Limited”. Somehow I had the feeling that the film is going to show some parts of the beautiful hill town Darjeeling and the magical “Darjeeling” toy train. But I was disappointed.

The film has no Darjeeling, except a weird looking train ( a cross between “Palace on Wheels” and Chapra local, where sexy stewardesses serve sweet lime and tea) named “Darjeeling Limited”. Has anyone seen a stewardess in an Indian train? This is so un-Indian, that at times I was feeling like I am watching a fantasy movie. The story line, from an Indian view point, is a cliche ridden travelogue where three “Gora” brothers travel on this mythical train to attain some kind of spiritual bliss through narcotic laden cough syrup and occasional stops at temples of no relevance. We have seen too many of these “Mystical and Spiritual India Saves the Western Soul” kind of films. There is no harm in making such films, especially for the western audience (and India may earn some tourism dollars in the process), but to me this oversimplification of the Indian way of life feels quite condescending. The brothers seem to go through a spiritual change when they witness the death and funeral of an Indian boy in a remote village. The stoic nature of the funeral, accompanied by a kind of placid indifference to life brought the three brothers closer than they have ever been. During their own father’s funeral, they were busy trying to get his Porche from the garage and their mother not attending the funeral at all. But the brothers and Wes fail to understand that the life that those Indian villagers lead is a result of their socio-economic circumstances (just as theirs is.) In a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates, such deaths are only a minor perturbation – and people just go on with their lives – cause they got to live. Is this the great message (or enlightenment) that the western audience is looking for? Or was it only the death that acted as a shock therapy to these rich and spoiled kids? In that case, this film could have been shot anywhere in the world – Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, Burma, anywhere – and the train could have been named Rio Express or Tashkent limited.

The film does have its moments though. The prologue, a short film titled “Hotel Chevalier”, was quite enjoyable. The short opening sequence of Bill Murray was funny but had no relevance to the rest of the film. Technically the film looked good too, nice photography and great music – played from Jack’s ipod for most of the time. The humor, though tacky at times, was typical of a Wes Anderson film casting Owen Wilson and maybe enjoyable to many of his fans. The use of portraits of Indian greats (like Gandhi, Patel, Tilak and others) on the train was interesting (never seen them on trains), especially when one of the last shots in the train showed a portrait of Satyajit Ray (at least that’s what it looked like in a fleeting moment) on the wall. Was it a joke?

I have a feeling that the film could have reached another dimension if the brothers had taken a real Indian train and experienced the real India in the process. Maybe, that would have helped them realize why their mother chose the life that she leads now. Wes Anderson had an opportunity to make a great film, but he blew it.

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