10 March 2008

Mother India and The Darjeeling Limited

My sweetie wanted to include Mother India in our adoption notice, but I couldn't quite wrap myself around that. Our child came from two people with a sad story and an orphanage too, yes; but all of India offering her up to us, plump and smiling, on a shiny stainless steel platter? Even if we are all connected, which I do believe, that was oversimplifying the situation a little too much, I felt.

Watching The Darjeeling Limited and its DVD featurette I was carried back to some of those beautiful moments from our week in India: the smiles and dedication and curiosity of the people we met everywhere: at the orphanage, at luxurious lunches, at the dosa stand (like an old-fashioned soda counter, a lovely stainless-and-formica-and-and-leatherette reminder of the Woolworth's era), at our guesthouse in a Kolkata suburb and our self-appointed guide whom we for some reason dubbed "George," all the schoolchildren in uniform calling out "hellow" and waving to us tourists, the marigolds in the car shrines, the cow shrines, the herd of goats passing through downtown at lunchtime, the dusky glory of our guesthouse host's golf club, in traffic, at the CD store, at the bakery, and on that wild and weird taxi ride with a stoned cabbie in one of those old Morris-type Ambassadors through a cloud of dust so dark our headlights were no help in penetrating it.

And I was reminded especially of one specific detail: I kept staring at the billboards because they were similar (full of ads) yet different (more text crammed into the same area), but I was having trouble identifying what it was that made them look so different. After a while I knew: they all seemed to be handmade. Every letter was a little different. Every square foot of every billboard was clearly create and arranged by the hand of a person. Here we know some giant printer has embossed and spewed out sheets that will be hung next to a freeway or highway. There, people have labored over every detail of these public ads and announcements.

I saw it as a reminder that we don't really employ people very well in this country. Many jobs have been replaced by machines, just as predicted by all the naysayers years ago. Could it be something other than coincidence that kids and older people don't have a place in society in the west? I'm not saying that everyone needs a menial job, but it seems to me there's a new spate of people in this culture who have grown up in the golden age of television and may not quite grasp that they might actually have to work for the nice house and flash car and the credit card and ATM full of instant cash. We've lost a connection to the idea that this is not necessarily everyone's destiny. Certainly our right to pursue it is, but I think we've come to mistake that for the right to achieve it. The saddest part to me is that our culture doesn't have as much room for things made or done by hand now. Even though we all have a Michael's or a Hobby Lobby within several miles now, crafts still seem to have been relegated to schoolchildren, church ladies, and a handful of younger women who have just enough spare time to learn to throw pots or paint or knit and keep these fading arts alive.

Well. I wasn't intending to rant about economics or fatalism, but there you go. Happy Monday.

Back to the Darjeeling's journey: I was thrilled to see that the featurette was about the production design, because I felt that was about half of the movie and maybe the part of the film I felt the most passionate about. I didn't feel the story was the strength of this film; it all seemed imbalanced and abrupt to me by the end, even while I liked most the words and images along the way. I enjoyed the brothers (who really did seem like brothers) and their weirdly mannered, structured behavior -- it matched up well with the painstakingly decorated train and sets. And my sweetie and I agreed that their luggage was like another character in the movie (I kept on trying to come up with collective nouns for it: the entourage of luggage, the Greek chorus of luggage, etc.).

See it and tell me what you think. Most of what I thought about was that the train in that movie had been decorated from scratch to look like that. Soot alert: just don't be surprised when everything isn't as fresh and brightly colored everywhere as it is in this film. Because I would want to take to the rails in India if I saw this movie without having been there. Perhaps it's impossible to prepare for India if you haven't been there -- you just have to go and see it for yourself.

I also felt great admiration for Wes Anderson for undertaking this production and for showing that you can do things like this in India. How thrilling to see that in action! Yes, you can find artisans who are happy to paint five hundred elephants by hand on your train and carve chairs and print tablecloths and fashion chandeliers if need be. If you can dream it -- and fund it -- you can do it. I called my friend one day and said, maybe we should film our elephant story as a live-action film in India! Later I thought, who am I kidding? But watching The Darjeeling Limited I thought, yes, we could do that! And it would be very exciting and fun and we would create all sorts of opportunities for happy accidents as I'm sure happened along the way in making this "filum" (as in, "Did you catch last-night's Satyajit Ray filum retrospective on PBS, hunh?").

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I dragged B to a show at the Armory in Pasadena a few years ago. Artists and photographers had made trips to Mexico looking for signage that was handmade. They photographed what they found, brought it back to the U.S. and made copies into handmade signs. The reason: signs are more and more replaced by plastic banners provided by big business (Coke, Nestlé). Little tiendas now simply unrolled and glued these banners to their walls and in one generation the artists who had painted the brilliant and individual "paintings" that adorned all little shops were gone.

Like the signs you saw in India, each letter was slightly different. Each crimson or ocher was mixed to a slightly tone. And like the snowflake or fingerprint, each sign was different, and a blessing for that.