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Crayons. Kooks. Siblings. Sikhs.

A Film Review by MEETA KAUR

 

Crayons. Kooks. Siblings. Sikhs. 

A partial list of descriptors for Wes Anderson's latest movie, Darjeeling Limited.  Let's start at the beginning of this list. 

Crayons: One hundred and twenty colours times ten are used for this colour-saturated set-design: the Darjeeling Limited train.  Mark Friedberg, film set designer, creates a banquet for the eyes. Turkish blue mosaic tiles lining the train compartments.  White porcelain teacups, embossed with the same Turkish blue yet distinct Indian elephant.  Familiar steel teakettles, glasses, and thaalis.   Chief steward's swirling peacock green and turquoise turban, matching not only his own outfit, but also the stewardess's geometric-print salwar kameez

Anderson's three bumbling American characters dressed in navy and gray suits against Friedberg's vibrant train design set accentuated how industrialized and minimalist American culture can be, set against the chroma of India. 

The set design had me longing for my summer vacations traveling through India.  Nostalgia set in and has me thinking about my next trip back.

Kooks:   Anderson's main characters are three American brothers on a spiritual quest through India.  They agree to meet on the Darjeeling Limited a year after their father's funeral; the funeral their mother didn't attend. The oldest brother, Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), plays mother hen to his younger brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman).  Francis is constantly organizing schedules, menu orders and trip agendas for his younger brothers and himself.  At first, he comes across as controlling, but his paternal or maybe maternal instincts creep through, as he continues to worry about his siblings and their well-being.  It was funny and sweet to watch this grown man fussing over two other grown men in every aspect of their lives. 

I have to admit I was initially irritated with how these characters' privilege and wealth let them run amok, like children in a foreign country. But somehow, the consistency of Francis Whitman's mother hen nurturing towards his younger brothers grew on me. It endeared me to his quest to make things right in his family for his brothers and himself.  Fortunately, as the storyline progresses, they all become less bratty and more humane.  

The film has been accused of being racist and fetishizing.  It certainly is when Peter states he loves the way the country smells - "kinda spicy".  But what can you really expect from characters that are meant to be self-absorbed and out of touch because of their devotion to themselves?  Luckily, again with these characters' growing vulnerability and warmth as ordinary people who have to eventually face themselves, the off-mark remarks ring true of cultural ignorance more than anything malicious. 

The chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia) is no-nonsense when it comes to running his train in an efficient and rule-respecting manner.  He weaves in and out of the brothers' shenanigans as an authority figure, having to scold these men into behaving.  I enjoyed watching a sardar hold a position of power over three white men.  It served as a brief moment of justice, given the realities of American airport security, narrow-minded hiring managers and school bullies.

Siblings:  At the heart of this film is the impact family has on individuals for years to come. As the three brothers warm up to each other and the people around them, I couldn't help warming up to them. A pivotal scene involves the three Whitman brothers encountering three Indian boys, and the events that unfold. 

The Whitman brothers end up spending time in the boys' village, which unlocks a sea of emotion in each main character without any of them saying a word.  It is simply felt.  In some strange way, I gained some understanding of how men express themselves emotionally by not expressing themselves. Like a novelist or artist, Andersen conveys so much through his scenes by what he decides to leave out. 

Sikhs:  I was thrilled to see the unflinching Sikh cab driver in the opening scene winding his way through oncoming Indian traffic, racing to deposit Bill Murray at the train station.  And seeing a Sikh family dining in the train compartment as extras was good fun.  At one point in the film, the Whitman brothers attend a kirtan, and are surrounded by a room full of Sikhs.  The brothers kneel down to matha-tek, questioning if the act itself is actually "working". 

It was equally as exciting to see Waris Ahluwalia show up in numerous scenes on the train as the chief steward.  It's encouraging to see him exploring his range and depth as an actor in these various supporting roles. 

What can I say?  I like seeing my people on film.  It was clear they served as a cultural backdrop for the Whitman brothers in India, but it's a positive sign of things to come.  Maybe it's one step closer to Waris Ahluwalia landing a role as a main character, more supporting Sikh characters in American settings, sardarnis breaking into the industry, a cinematic future where Sikhs are three-dimensional characters in Hollywood films.  It all starts with the vision.     

Despite the early irritations, Darjeeling Limited is worth seeing.

 

[Also, see an interview with Waris Ahluwalia, "Enter the World of Waris" in the PEOPLE section of sikhchic.com]

Conversation about this article

1: Satvir Kaur (Boston, U.S.A.), October 23, 2007, 7:53 AM.

I've been wanting to watch this movie. Now, hope to soon!

2: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, CT, U.S.A.), October 23, 2007, 11:37 AM.

Meeta, you have captured everything that I felt about this film - Waris is a treat to the eyes and utterly delicious - I loved the fact that he did not have to speak in a 'desi' accent for his character - sheer joy!

3: Anandpal Singh (Oakland, New Jersey, U.S.A.), October 23, 2007, 1:47 PM.

Wes Anderson is a brilliant writer and filmmaker. I can't wait to see this one!

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