There is a moment halfway through the movie where Francis (Owen Wilson), Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and Peter (Adrien Brody) find themselves in the middle of rural India on a bus. An Indian man stares at them incredulously and asks “What are you doing in this place?” and without skipping a beat Francis answers with utter sincerity, “Well originally we came on a spiritual journey but I guess it didn’t pan out that way.” The Indian man gives them a long understanding look, but he is hardly surprised. These aren’t the first white people he’s seen using his country for some sort of enlightenment, and it certainly be the last.
This exchange sums up Wes Anderson’s India. It is rich and textured, with many beautiful vistas and a thoroughly lived-in culture. Yet it carries on completely unconcerned about the spiritual development of three needy and mostly unlikeable white brothers who are desperately trying to use the country’s rich history of religion, culture, and spirituality to fix their own ills. The three brothers find themselves on this journey one year after the death of their father, meeting each other for the first time since that fateful day. Francis, the oldest and the surrogate parent of the three, has organized the trip following a near-fatal accident as a desperate attempt to draw the estranged siblings closer together. Out of obligation and maybe a little desperation Jack and Peter show up at the train station, each of them running away from their lives at home. Under usual circumstances, this would be the setup for a saccharine sweet movie about life-changing epiphanies and revelations with a heavy dose of familial reconciliation. But this is Wes Anderson, and he is too rightly smug to allow this to happen.
Instead The Darjeeling Limited is a meandering masterpiece about the ways we manufacture artificial epiphanies. Francis wants his spiritual journey, but he does it with heavily detailed and laminated itineraries. The other two brothers spend as much time being as obsessed about their other lives as they do whatever is happening right in front of them. All three of them have brought a ridiculous amount of literal baggage to complement the heavy metaphorical ones they carry. Any attempt at brotherly reconnections is immediately negated by each other’s self-absorbtion and any second that only two of them is together is spent gossiping and criticizing the missing brother. They constantly pledge new promises to one another and then break them as quickly as they make them.
On my first viewing, this lack of progress in the storytelling and growth of the characters frustrated me. But ten years later, and ten years older, it dawned on me that Anderson is telling this story this way because he knows that any profundities uncovered in this film would be cheaply earned. He is telling a story about estranged siblings from a torn apart family and there are no cheap reconciliations with estranged siblings. The three brothers know each other intimately. They know each others secrets and weaknesses. Their frustrations with one another have been developed for years and each one knows exactly how to push the other’s buttons. Whatever growth they may have had apart from each other quickly devolves into well-established and rehearsed roles the moment they come together. And most tellingly, the only bond that really keeps them together is one that is not of their own choosing. At one point Jack muses, “I wonder if the three of us would’ve been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people.” And the other two remain tellingly silent.
Now of course on the surface this does sound like a downer of a plot and at some level it is. But fortunately in the hands of Wes Anderson he calibrates the film so that, like the three forlorn brothers, we are frequently distracted by the picturesque sandbox that he has created. Borrowing heavily from the playbook of the great Satyajit Ray, India’s vibrancy of colours, sounds, and culture turns out to be the perfect backdrop for Anderson’s distinctive style so that arguably The Darjeeling Limited may turn out to be his most beautiful looking picture. And unlike so many other Anderson movies, his India never feels like a fairy tale storybook but rather a fully lived in world in which his three white leads intentionally stick out like a sore thumb. Anderson’s India is never really concerned with aiding the brothers on their journey. There is no magical minority character dispelling wise wisdom to them, and whatever revelations they come up with are the results of grasping at straws than any real profundity. The few Indians who have to interact with the unlikeable trio either do everything to ignore them or, like the train conductor, are incredibly annoyed by their antics. His is a colourful and vibrant India that does not exist for the benefit of white people, and instead has a vibrant life of its own.
However despite most of the movie being quite good, there is still the nagging sense that Anderson isn’t covering any new ground here. The irony that his characters are stuck in existential ruts is not lost here as thematically Anderson seems to be merely spinning the wheels on his variations of sad-sack men who can’t seem to move on from past hang-ups. It seems that in The Darjeeling Limited he finally exhausts that well, and as such represents perhaps his least interesting film thematically.
In the end, because all spiritual journeys need an appropriate climax, the brothers reach for some sort of enlightenment and at least on the surface find it. Their burdens seemingly lifted they set off to new horizons, new hopes, and leave their past behind them. Of course any evidence of real progress remains to be seen, as no major change of behaviour and character has happened. It is a brutally honest assessment of most of our grasps of epiphanies and the fact that they have a limited shelf life. Tellingly the final scene is focused not on the brothers reflecting on their personal journeys, but on another train ride and another trip to take a smoke. The camera pans away from them and we end with an extended look at the beautiful Indian countryside. The message is clear that India at least is not concerned with whatever journey these white boys have been on and carries on as it always has, waiting for the next outsider to try and use the country for their own enlightenment.