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Favourite Moments in Cinema: The Indian funeral preparations in The Darjeeling Limited

Posted on: September 4, 2011

No one thinks Wes Anderson is just okay. He may be the ultimate love/hate director, his oeuvre inspiring passion one way or another. It’s not hard to see why. The textbook definition of an auteur, you can spot a Wes Anderson joint at forty paces. The Futura font, mannered performances of well-off, well-dressed, well-meaning idiots stumbling through social interactions in beautifully decorated surrounds, every frame is an artwork. The dialogue is staid, awkward, stagey, witty but tinged with cruelty, sometimes so imbued with deeper significance that it is laughable. Depending on where you stand with Anderson, this is part of his charm or the reason to walk out of the screening. 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited is the most indulgent of his films, a gloriously shot road movie in technicolour, detailing three brothers’ attempts to reconnect following the death of their father. That it is set in India is almost incidental, nothing but a beautiful backdrop to the quibbles and neuroses of three rich white Americans. Enjoyment of the film depends almost entirely on how much you are able to forgive this fact.

There is, however, one scene that moves beyond the typical Anderson fare. Kicked off the titular train for a masterclass in bad behaviour involving pepper spray, a brawl over a belt and an escaped, highly poisonous snake, the brothers witness three young boys fall into a river, and rescue two. “I didn’t save mine,” Peter says.

Gone are the backdrops that seem like paintings. The brothers, Peter carrying the boy’s body in his arms, are led into an isolated village, the horizon disappearing into a mirage of nothingness. The father, played by the Indian Brando, Irrfan Khan, rushes forward to receive his child’s body. The brothers are ushered away by an elder. A series of vignettes follow as the village prepares for the funeral, marginally disrupted by the presence of their American visitors. Their luggage is piled together near the livestock. Jack helps make garlands of white flowers. Francis silently communicates with one of the children. Peter, previously filled with doubt over his pregnant wife, nurses a baby. The soundtrack rumbles with keening women. The father sits alone, desolate in a darkened room. He washes his son’s body. He watches, and waits. As the brothers go to leave, they are called back to attend the funeral, and, in standard Anderson slow-mo, join the villagers in white, before the action moves predictably to a flashback of their journey to their own father’s funeral the year before. The film is, after all, about these rich Americans. But for a moment, it transcends their concerns and becomes something atypically simple, uncontrived, honest.

Irrfan Khan is a huge reason for the sequence’s resonance. In a tiny role with no dialogue, he dominants the screen. In comparison to Schwartzman, Wilson and Brody’s performances, all suitably mercurial for an Anderson film, Khan is less affected, depicting raw devastation with such quiet dignity that he makes the three movie stars look like parodies.

But Anderson too deserves plaudits for displaying an unusual subtlety. The Darjeeling Limited, after all, centres around three brothers who are literally dragging around luggage belonging to (about) their father. But in this sequence, he shows admirable restraint. Here, there are no quirky music cues or staged tableaux. The three brothers wear simple white clothes, a marked removal from Anderson’s totemic use of objects and clothing to embody character (the Team Zissou uniforms, or Chas Tenenbaum’s tracksuits, for example). The sequence is practically dialogue-free, unlike the wordy natterings of the rest of the film. The film has gone from the rumbling speed of train travel to the languid pace of quiet village life. For a director so idiosyncratic, Anderson’s decision to show such restraint makes the sequence particularly memorable, allowing the action to breathe and linger.

Anderson takes an observational approach, allowing the action to speak for itself without explaining it for the audience, because it is not important. This creates a universal effect, not getting distracted by traditions a Western audience may not immediately understand. This avoids an intrusive, anthropological eye on the Otherness of Indian culture, thereby allowing the viewer to appreciate the deeper meaning, how a village pulls together to survive a tragedy such as this, the death of a child. Anderson’s delicate treatment makes this the scene to remember once the credits have rolled.

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