The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson, 2007
In the hill towns and stations hastily established along the hills and valleys in India, the colonial masters transplanted their architectures, education systems and religion as a way of life. While the architecture proved too expensive for the locals to copy effortlessly, religion and education struck roots into the mountain soil. Coming across The Darjeeling Limited, I expected stereotypes about India’s poverty and concomitant spirituality. Even with Anderson’s reputation for inventiveness, India’s proverbial stature as the spiritual capital of the world is difficult to skirt around, especially for a foreign filmmaker shooting a story of three brothers journeying to Darjeeling to ‘find [them]selves’.
The opening scene in which Bill Murray and Peter Brody (Peter Whitman, in the film) race on the platform to board the train, comes across as a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the iconic scene in DDLJ. There are obvious differences, of course: DDLJ’s Simran was being hoisted to the presumable happily-ever-after life with Raj while TDL’s Peter was merely escaping the trappings of his marriage in responding to his elder brother’s call for a reunion and a trip to Darjeeling.
On the train, Peter (Adrian Brody), meets his brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson). For the latter, this trip stands in for his ideal of a ‘life changing experience’ that would rejuvenate and restore their fraternal bonding. Indeed, the brothers rarely communicate. The younger brothers are surprised at the sight of Francis’ heavily bandaged face and pronounced limp: they did not know that he had met with a near-fatal accident. Peter does not want Francis to know that Alice, his wife was pregnant and Jack continues to pass his autobiographical writings as ‘products of the imagination’. Despite their introductory ‘I love you’s, the brothers come across as oddly mismatched, with little direct connection.
They bicker almost continuously. Francis is jealous of Peter’s possession of their late father’s sunglasses and shaving kit and incites Jack to join him. Peter insists that the possessions are a symbol of their father’s immense love towards him alone. The ensuing fight causes them to be thrown off the train by a scrupulously honest Sikh conductor who is tired of their antics.
The unbelievably luxurious train compartment seems to correspond visually to the theory of oriental grandeur. The brothers visit the temple of Thousand Bulls to sanctify the beginning of their journey. Following the Orientalist paradigm, the camera pans across rooftops with cooing pigeons to the crowded marketplace in front of the temple where Peter buys cheap leather sandals and a poisonous snake. Predictably, Francis has one of his expensive leather shoes stolen by a shoe-shine boy. There are also references to a mystic who had given Francis three peacock feathers with detailed instructions about a small ritual which would help them transcend their current problems.
The film also has nuanced subversions however. The sweet-lime server is an Indian woman Rita, who speaks perfect English and has no qualms about conducting a sexual affair with Jack, who in turn, continuously gulps heavy doses of Francis’ tranquilisers. At the dining table, the brothers are accompanied by an old man reading a newspaper: it is entirely possible that he understands every word passing between the brothers, but conducts himself silently throughout the conversation.
Nevertheless, the brothers soon discover that the temple visits have not benefitted them in any way. Right when you expect them to abort the journey and fly away, they encounter an accident. They encounter three drowning boys, one of whom dies in Peter’s arms. Inducted into the poor family, they recognize and empathise with the intense sorrow of the bereaved father (Irrfan Khan). The vibrant red-orange-yellow colour palette changes into one of whites and greys against the backdrop of brilliant blue walls and desert landscape. Even the clutter of the frames is reduced significantly. The emotional baggage carried around by the brothers seems to have reduced somewhat in their first hand experience of the tragedy, which receives more of an artistic than a melodramatic treatment.
While they had jostled with each other and burrowed into their selves, the tragedy serves to free them up a bit, till Francis reveals that the journey was aimed at meeting their mother (Anjelica Houston) who lived at the Himalayan foothills as a nun. It emerges that she had abandoned her boys and husband to respond to her calling. She is not ecstatic at the sight of her grown-up children and is as overbearing as Francis. At the end, she chooses to disappear again. As her staff at the monastery inform, even without the danger of the tiger lurking over the monastery, her periodic disappearance was quite common.
It is a pleasure to watch Darjeeling Limited precisely because of its meandering course. It is never possible to pinpoint what follows what in the narrative. While the narrative is definitely not a series of upsets, it’s not a tale of high-flying optimism either. If Anderson’s films always have an aura of the wonderful and magical, the deep despair and frustration of the brothers is palpably on the surface. Though the frames are crowded with expensive belongings, signifying the chaotic state of mind and confusion of the Whitmans, there is also a nagging suggestion of the emotional emptiness of the brothers: these are three children who lost their father in a sudden accident and were abandoned by their mother who continues to refuse to receive them.
The Darjeeling Limited is scarcely a touristy exploration of the wonders of India or the humanity of its people. It is more of a gradual attainment of selfhood through the location of the wonder that is the self. Without discrediting India, as a locale, in the slightest way, Anderson posits the source of self-identification in the possibilities for disaster in every way of life. As the brothers race onto the final train in the film, without their bags, their emotional trappings seem to have been divested and their imaginations are represented through a tracking shot in which Jack’s ex-girlfriend Natalie Portman, the businessman played by Bill Murray, the snack girl, Rita, Francis’ fired secretary and the hidden tiger stalking the monastery all seem passengers on the same train. Whether one could call the Darjeeling Limited a metaphor for life, is open to interpretation.
Satyajit Ray’s films provide a major section of the background score to Anderson’s film. It seems to be an oblique acknowledgement of his limitations in the portrayal of humanism achieved almost effortlessly in the works of the former.The Darjeeling Limited is admittedly less pulsating. It remains a wonderfully effusive, magical little piece of cinema nonetheless.
– Pritha Mukherjee