Friday, April 04, 2008

Darjeeling Unlimited

Peter Sarstedt was born in New Delhi, to Albert and Coral Sarstedt, both in the civil service, in what was still a British possession in 1942. The following year, his parents moved the family to Kurseong near Darjeeling. Did Anderson know this bit of trivia before deciding to give Sarstedt's 1969 UK chart topper "Where do you go to (My Lovely)" a rebirth in The Darjeeling Limited's graceful prequel Hotel Chevalier?

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Could Anderson predict that his eclectic use of Ray's musical scores and widely publicized references to The Darjeeling Limited as a tribute to Ray -- and to Renoir who during the shooting of The River in India met Ray and encouraged him to make films -- would inevitably attract critical comparisons contrasting Anderson's clinically detached deadpan irony with Ray's empathetic humanism?

Very likely.

A. O. Scott (NYT):
But humanism lies either beyond his grasp or outside the range of his interests. His stated debt to “The River,” Jean Renoir’s film about Indian village life, and his use of music from the films of Satyajit Ray represent both an earnest tribute to those filmmakers and an admission of his own limitations. They were great directors because they extended the capacity of the art form to comprehend the world that exists. He is an intriguing and amusing director because he tirelessly elaborates on a world of his own making.
Robert Davis (Errata):
Anderson bluntly ties the ceremony to the father's funeral using a jarring flashback that feels like a scene from Reservoir Dogs, a film that's probably closer kin to The Darjeeling Limited, with its color-coded characters, eclectic music, and slo-mo strides, than the films of Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir that Anderson cites as inspiration.
Predictable, and a little unfortunate. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is definitely not the most artistic expression of inspiration. And how uneasy lied the head that wears the (somewhat reductionist) humanist crown?

At least a little.

An auteurist look at Ray filmography might not quickly reveal the fact that eight out of his first eleven films were faithful adaptations of works by three great turn-of-the-century humanist Bengali writers -- Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (1894-1950) -- who were a generation or three older than Ray. Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar, Teen Kanya and Charulata created Ray's legacy, and even today, especially in west, he is primarily remembered for a set of films that spoke of a world Ray had very little first hand experience of. Kanchanjangha, a real-time narrative set in Darjeeling and Ray's first film based on his own script, was greeted with a coldness typical of Darjeeling winters. Pensive detached Monisha, eccentric bird-watcher Jagadish, narcissistic Indranath, Ashok of humble background but of not-so-humble demeanor, and the upper-middle class milieu of elite Bengalis vacationing in a hill station and speaking Bangla with a liberal sprinkling of English, were not easily reducible to universal archetypes. Ray also drew significant flak at home for his portrayal of Apu in segments of Aparajito and Apur Sansar which were perceived to be cold and detached, a departure from the original.

Darjeeling, the backdrop of Feludar goyendagiri, a short mystery, also witnessed the debut of Ray's legendary detective Feluda. With the help of Feluda's dry wit, sarcasm and cynicism, eccentric Professor Shanku's exploits, brilliant translations of Lear and Carroll on the pages of Sandesh inspired by Sukumar Ray's genes and his absurdist universe, idiosyncrasies of numerous single middle-aged outsider male protagonists, distinctly unique but similarly quirky, in dozens of short stories including the one on which Agantuk, Ray's last film, is based, Ray created a reflexive creative world of his own, cherishing and defying the boundaries of genres with equal glee, a world at least as far removed from Tagore's and Bibhutibhushan's as from Anderson's.

More troubling is the subtle insinuation of racism in Jonah Weiner's Slate attack piece - Unbearable Whitenes:
Rita isn't a character so much as a familiar type: the mysterious, exotic, dark-skinned beauty. Jack hardly exchanges a word with her, but, reeling from a bad breakup, he begins pestering her to leave her Sikh boyfriend, convinced for no good reason that she can turn his life around.
That paragraph perfectly describes Hari's attitude and feelings towards Duli, tribal "Miss India" in Aranyer Dinratri. Assuming Weiner would not find Aranyer Dinratri and Ray equally obnoxious, isn't he expressing a double standard which simultaneously forces white man's historic burden to become a contemporary white man's guilt as well as a brown man's privilege?

Going back to Davis who correctly notes a void at the core of the film:

Anderson is too ironically deadpan to embrace any sudden transformations in his characters, so they don't seem remarkably changed by [an event by a river], which effectively reduces it to a plot point with an emotional patina, rendered impotent by a filmmaker who seems to think that he can compensate for the emptiness at his film's core just by pulling away from sentimentality. He's trying to fill one void with another.
The river event might be impotent which is partially the point, but the void is powerfully resonant of what is absent.

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