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Modern Orientalism and the Ethics of Representation in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited

By Meghan Farbridge

“No matter how skillful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image,” explains film critic, André Bazin (7). “The photographic image,” however, “is the object itself” (Bazin 8; emphasis added). In a social, rather than purely aesthetic, context, this elision between the representational portrait and the referent is complicated. The ostensibly simple concept of ‘re-presenting’ is a “means of communication…[while] also a potential obstacle to it” (Mitchell 13). Indeed, an image of the East represented through a Western lens simultaneously communicates a certain idea of the place to its audience, while obscuring a real understanding of the culture and people. Within the represented image is a harmful and colonial gaze. What seems to be simply a portrait becomes far more complex. Drawing from Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, and placing this in conversation with Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited, I ask: what is at stake when a Western film lens represents Eastern experience for a Western audience? Anderson’s representation – like any Western lens of the East – is naïve at best and dangerous at worst, further building up a discourse of harmful stereotypes. The portrait ultimately risks conflation with its referent, and by substituting in the mediated version, representation eventually obfuscates the thing it seeks to represent.

All representation, whether in literature, film, media, or otherwise, holds the potential for misrepresentation, falsity, and bias. The pervasive issue, then, is that misrepresented images risk, as Bazin says, being perceived as the “object itself” (7). The mediated portrait stands in as proxy for the referent. Thus, the relationship between the object and portrait is a paradoxical one: the mediated version of a thing can, albeit temporarily, act as a substitute for the actual. Such begets questions on the ethics of representation. Anderson’s film is another cinematic iteration of the West’s Orientalist view of South Asia; through this repetition, the misrepresentation subsequently becomes the dominant Western understanding. The Darjeeling Limited is an exemplary instance of modern Orientalism in film. It functions as a cultural application of the detrimental consequences of (mis)representation. Through the ‘spiritual’ journey of the film’s protagonists, brothers Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman, Anderson unwittingly reinforces negative stereotypes about the East and, in doing so, contributes to the Orientalist Western cultural imagination of South Asia.

The concept of representation requires social convention and acceptance. Once a representation is agreed upon, “the decision to let A stand for B [often]…open[s] up a…new realm of possibilities: B becomes a likely candidate to stand for C and so on” (Mitchell 13). It is this social convention that elicits questions of epistemology within representation: who is allowed to know, and then represent, something the audience could temporarily perceive as the object itself? So, if A is The Darjeeling Limited, a popular film to its Western audience, and B is an American ‘spiritual’ journey across India, then C could be actual Indian religion, spirituality, and experience. B might then be mistaken by the wide audience of A to stand in for C. To the viewer, the mediated portrait comes to literally be the proxy, standing in for the referent. Representation then begins to smudge the referent. Thus, the Western White male-directed representation of Indian culture begins to shift Anderson’s Western audience’s view of Indian cultures, peoples, and religions. When one lets A stand for B, and so allows B to stand for C and onwards, one’s representation becomes doubly and triply removed from the original. This chain can continue indefinitely. The continual removal from the referent causes egregious misunderstanding, which begins to be interpreted as the real.

With this framework of social convention in mind, Orientalism further complicates such an idea of substitution. Said’s theory of Orientalism understands it as a “style of thought” and a “corporate institution,” which deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it…Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Westernized films that attempt to represent ‘Oriental’ culture end up “dealing with” the East problematically (Said 3). In a sense, these false representations ‘describe’ Eastern experience and ‘teach’ it to its audience. The operative word in the problematizing of representation is ‘mediate.’ Mediation separates the original from the copy, and this mediation can take on the form of prejudice and Orientalism. A Western lens mediates an artistic portrait of the East, then this Western portrait acts as substitute.

Without delving into an extensive formal analysis of the film, The Darjeeling Limited is a noteworthy cultural work when considering contemporary Orientalist narratives. Romantic, aestheticized representations of Indian cultures, peoples, and landscapes provide the backdrop for White male introspection and familial growth. Anderson’s uncritical and often unironic portrayal of the brothers’ spiritual journey reinforces Orientalist tropes. A fleeting sexual tryst between Rita, an Indian stewardess married to the train director, and Jack, the middle brother, illuminates Jack’s character – but with more nefarious implications. He is heartbroken, and instantly falls in love with Rita as she serves him a sweet lime drink. They smoke a cigarette together in the bathroom, and kissing and clinking belt buckles tastefully imply a sexual encounter; afterward, he wants to leave the bathroom together, while she pushes him back. On the one hand, the viewer learns that Jack is a romantic in a vulnerable position from a devastating breakup, itching to forget his ex-girlfriend. On the other, Rita falls into the trope of the promiscuous Oriental woman. The “almost uniform association between the Orient and sex” is, as Said explains, “a remarkably persistent motif in Western attitudes to the Orient” (188). While “for nineteenth-century Europe…sex in society entailed a web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations,” these same Europeans saw the ‘exotic’ women of the Orient as having the “freedom of licentious sex” (Said 189; emphasis added). Translating this to the modern context, when the fact that Rita is married does not stop her from sleeping with Jack, she falls into accordance with this stereotype of the sexually immoral Oriental. At another point, a boy in town steals Francis’s three thousand dollar loafers. While this is indeed one of the few moments of irony where Anderson asks that the viewer laugh at the ridiculousness of his protagonist, beneath the irony is the trope of the impoverished third-world child and thievery. Sibel Bozdoğan notes “violence, hidden sexuality, the harem, the slave market, or the call to prayer as the stereotypical images of an Orientalized Orient” (6). Anderson’s characteristically dreamy style masks these problematic elements.

Indeed, the director’s cultural and social surroundings often seem tangential to his visual representations of people or places. And while Anderson’s film undeniably represents a beautiful cinematic aesthetic of India, the reductive nature of his Orientalist gaze undermines the most poignant cultural identities of Indian peoples and culture. Indian culture is not a mere aesthetic, though that is what Anderson chooses to portray. Indian characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional, even voiceless in some cases – for example, the death of a young rural Indian boy induces the spiritual awakening of the three White brothers. The moments in which The Darjeeling Limited plays into Orientalist tropes illustrate the ethical paradox of representation.

In the words of the eldest Whitman brother, Francis, the axis of the film is the “spiritual journey, where each of [them] seek the unknown” in the ‘mystical’ and ‘spiritual’ Eastern landscape (Anderson 00:06:26). Recall the idea that Orientalism is a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3; emphasis added). Consider, then, that in his representation of Indian culture, Anderson either re-names or leaves nameless the places of worship in which he films. The brothers land at their first stop – it is filmed in Jodhpur, but a fleeting glance at Francis’s itinerary suggests they are in Shivapur – with just enough time to stop at the “Temple of 1000 Bulls: probably one of the most spiritual places in the world” (Anderson 00:22:02). There is, however, no temple by that name in India. Anderson renames an existing place of worship as ‘The Temple of 1000 Bulls’ and then imaginatively restructures this temple as “one of the most spiritual places in [his film’s] world” (00:22:02). Renaming to suit Western discourse is a distinctly colonial practice.

The problem here is not that Anderson creates a fictional space – certainly the Darjeeling Limited is not a real train, nor are these real people. Fictionalization is, of course, simply part of filmmaking and art. The issue lies in the Orientalist nature of a Western director revisioning and rewriting ‘spiritual’ Indian spaces to an extent of tangible non-Western cultural erasure. It is near-impossible to find the name of the real temple in which Anderson filmed this scene. In trying to discover the original names of the temples – in the same way, for example, that one might be able to see the name of the building in which something was shot – most accessible online sources only point to the film, and not to any actual temple. It is also striking to note that despite visiting, if renaming, these religious temples, Anderson completely evades any actual discussion of religion. Rather than address the major religions with which his characters engage, such as Sikhism or Buddhism, Anderson opts instead for terms such as ‘spiritual’ or ‘magical.’ This renaming of temples and bypassing of South Asian religions is a Western cinematic domination.

In the same way that Anderson places his own names over existing Indian spaces, he also removes Indian voices: a lack of subtitles renders any characters who do not speak English voiceless. The rural village funeral sequence is the pivotal moment in the film – all the while, these Indian characters are unintelligible to Anderson’s intended audience. Said describes the limits of Orientalism as “the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region” (108). The death of one young village boy instigates the brothers’ ‘spiritual’ awakening. And yet what seems to be an important funeral rite, the public cremation, is set to a Kinks song. As 1960s English rock band sings “strangers on this world we are/we are not two, we are one” over the scene, Anderson’s intended feeling of unity registers as tone-deaf. More screen time is given to their slow motion walk through the ceremony than to the ceremony itself. Perhaps Anderson excuses this stripping of their language, and thus of their motivations and humanity, as an aesthetic choice – although diegetic text does appear elsewhere in the film, so there is little reason to avoid translation. No matter Anderson’s logic, the village and its inhabitants register as merely a setting for the brothers to experience their spiritual awakening, and to come together as a family in the wake of the Indian family’s loss. 

To represent is to claim an authority over what you are representing. Anderson’s Westernized representation of India contributes to the tradition of Orientalism in media and discourse. The Darjeeling Limited effectively illustrates Said’s theory of Western imagination of the Orient. With a White man as the director, renaming of religious temples, and voiceless rural Indian characters, the East is established as simply a reflection of the West. The power dynamic remains imbalanced, and the West is still, as it has been historically, at the center. For Said, the success of Orientalism has ensured that “entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political, and social history are considered mere responses to the West. The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behavior” (109). The paradoxical relation between referent and representation allows a Western perspective to overwrite Eastern experience. Even such a seemingly benign film as The Darjeeling Limited plays a role in the ethics of representation.The Darjeeling Limited holds every aesthetic detail characteristic of a Wes Anderson film: symmetrically balanced cinematography, a pleasing colour palette, repetitive patterning. And yet it was, as the title innocently seems to predict, limited – it had all the misgivings of a piece of popular media created by a White man for a Western audience about a foreign country. Anderson reduces rich Indian culture to aesthetics, at best, and stereotypes, at worst. To problematize the concept of representation is not to condemn it; neither is it to praise the representation as having an “essentially objective character” (Bazin 7). It is, rather, to realize the ethical implications of representation and move beyond aesthetic value.

Works Cited

Anderson, Wes, director. The Darjeeling Limited. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2008.

Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” translated by Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, 1960, pp. 4–9.

Bozdoğan, Sibel. “Journey to the East: Ways of Looking at the Orient and the Question of Representation.”

Mitchell, W. J. T. “Representation” in Critical Terms for Literary Study. Chicago: University of  Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 11–21.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.