The Darjeeling Limited and Orientalism

Edward Said coined the term ‘Orientalism’ as an dogma which seeks to secure a persistent understanding of the East as Other[1]. Said describes a repertoire of images which generate this impression[2]: backwardness, timelessness and exotic sensuality. All of Said’s theoretical tropes are played out in The Darjeeling Limited (Anderson: 2007); a film that follows three American brothers seeking spiritual reconciliation in India. Chinua Achebe claims dominant racist narratives articulate non-western cultures through their oppressors[3]; representing natives as articulations of environment rather than as individuals. Using Said and Achebe in conjunction allows for a holistic and thorough postcolonial study of the creation of India as a western Other on film.

The Darjeeling Limited relies on preconceived notions of Otherness, perpetuated by Orientalism, in its portrayal of India. Its failure to engage with Indian culture comes from an assumption that India is too much of an Other to be understood. Said suggests that this is partially a result of America lacking a colonial history; the UK, he says, has “An archive of actual experience of being in India, of ruling the country for several hundred years… The American experience is much more indirect, much more based on abstractions.”[4] As a result then, American portrayals of India largely remains loyal to Orientalism’s pervasive repertoire of images.  There is a tendency to see these differences as so vast that American renderings often conclude that the East is in some way unknowable. The East seems so much a binary opposite that it cannot be depicted accurately by Hollywood. The Darjeeling Limited assumes that attempts to comprehend India are futile; instead concerning itself with Western experience with the country. Reluctance to engage with the ‘true’ India is evident in the film’s refusal to provide subtitles on the rare occasions where Hindi is spoken. The audience is not included in dialogue that isn’t directed at white characters. This effectively solely aligns the spectator with the Western protagonists as they share the brothers’ bewilderment. However, it is also evocative of Said’s claim “one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself”[5]; Anderson views Indians as so vastly different that understanding them is impossible. In being denied translation Indians lose the ability to articulate their own culture and are forced to adopt the language of their oppressor.

For Said, the myth that the Orient inhabits a space untouched by the passing of time is vital to its being understood as an Other. “They developed this kind of image of a timeless orient. As if the orient, unlike the West, doesn’t develop, it stays the same. One of the problems with Orientalism is that it creates an image outside of history- of something placid and still; eternal… It’s a creation, you might say, of an ideal Other.”[6] Notions of timelessness work to infantilize India; a sentimental freedom from the trivial anxieties that come with modernity. However, this imagined timelessness of the East is damaging; it assumes a deprivation of development and backwardness synonymous with a lack of intellectual growth. The brothers’ visit to a rural village is the most obvious manifestation of this timelessness. Depictions of the locals evoke the outdated stereotype of natives as ‘noble savage’; an idea coined by Rousseau[7] believing indigenous peoples are closer to the earth and more natural, liberated humans[8]. The idealized noble savage is merely another way to marginalise indigenous people; “it creates images of the savage that serve primarily to re-define the European”[9], creating an Other to ‘sophisticated’, industrialized Europe.[10]

Anderson continually depicts India as nonsensical. Although Said does not mention irrationality as a trope of Orientalism, his assertion that the West perpetuates an image of an undeveloped, un-developing Orient informs impressions of chaos. The Darjeeling Limited champions a chaotic India, continually drawing attention to the country’s apparent backwardness. The film depicts lack of reason as comical; infantilizing Indians and rationalising the West’s presumed superiority. When the train suddenly halts an exchange takes place; “The train is lost,” “How can it be lost? It’s on rails.”[11] The comical mayhem of the East surpasses Western imagination; the brothers cannot fathom the mistake. The rails provide a symbol of an obvious rational path, impossible for a Western mind to deviate from which is abandoned and missed by the East. In another occurrence after watching boys playing cricket with a tennis ball Francis says “I love it here, these people are beautiful.”[12] Francis’ proclamation of “these people” is demonstrative of an otherness and separation, his comment is condescending and implies a naivety in its subjects. Playing cricket in itself is a hangover from the nation’s colonial past; a reminder of Britain’s imperial rule. The boys appear comical in their attempts, and failure, to mimic Western tradition.

One crucial image of Orientalism is “the sensual woman who’s there to be used by the man.”[13] Rita in The Darjeeling Limited perfectly fulfils this imagined role. The West’s fidelity to this persona has led to a fetishization of Eastern women. Boehme illustrates this objectification; “The female body signifies achieved desire, ideal made flesh… the invocation of the body rests upon the assumption of predominantly masculine- and upper or middle-class, authority and historical agency.”[14] Eastern women’s presence only as sensual objects is another example of a stereotypical inherent submissiveness. The pervasiveness of this image reveals Western desires to conquer and dominate that which is unknown or hidden. Rita is a dutiful, colonial servant. Her job as stewardess is to ensure the Americans are comfortable and her controlled speech denotes an ingrained servitude, illustrated by the erasure of her regional accent. Orientalist expectations of submissiveness and ‘easiness’ are realised in Rita’s not asking Jack’s name until after they become intimate. The scene is edited to further confirm this aspect of her character; cutting from Jack inviting her for a cigarette to a close-up of the couple passionately kissing. By denying the viewer the lead-up to their embrace, the film reinforces Orientalism’s eroticisation of Eastern women.

Alloula proposes that Western desire to dominate is intensified due to Eastern women’s dress.[15] Orientalism warps conservative dress into eroticism, interpreting its mystery as a challenge; Alloula considers this a Western tendency to aestheticize temptation.[16] His work discusses of the eagerness of Western photographers to capture nude Algerian women[17] and realise Orientalist myths. He writes; “the colonial postcard says this: these women, who were reputably invisible or hidden, and, until now, beyond sight, are henceforth public; for a few pennies at any time their intimacy can be broken into and violated.”[18] His critique of the postcards becomes relevant to The Darjeeling Limited in Anderson’s decision to ‘unveil’ Rita’s body. Jack persuades Rita to see him again; before she gives in verbally the audience are granted access to parts of her body which have previously remained covered. Rita appears in close-up, standing in front of a full-length mirror which displays the reflection of her undone dress, naked back and bottom. Staging the scene thus allows Jack visual victory prior to Rita’s consent, undermining her agency over her own body. The easiness with which Jack appears to have his way with Rita is evocative of Alloula’s imagined responses to the colonial postcard; “lucky bastard! He doesn’t get bored over there!”[19]

Orientalism must be taken in conjunction with feminist theory to fully articulate the way Eastern women appear on film. Mulvey’s influential essay suggests that it is not the intrigue of Rita’s ‘forbidden’ Eastern body that determines her objectification, but dominant patriarchal ideology dictating how film addresses women.[20] For Mulvey, scopophilia and narcissistic recognition defines how women appear on film;[21] the spectator aligns themselves with the male subject and therefore derives voyeuristic pleasure by viewing the female object.[22] Jack’s pursuit of Rita palpably plays out the tension between subject and object. The camera invites the viewer to share Jack’s ‘male gaze’ through positioning him in close up; the audience sees what he sees and empathises with him. Rita’s entire body is visible in the following shot, the spectator watches with Jack as she walks down the carriage, he body becoming an object of sexual stimulation.[23] Mulvey writes; “In their traditional, exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact,”[24] suggesting it is cinema’s assumption of heterosexual male audience which determines how women are presented, rather than a Western obsession with the other. Similarities between Mulvey and Berger’s writing demonstrates that this is phenomenon exclusive to film, but all art; “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at… Thus she turns herself into an object, and most importantly an object of vision: a sight.”[25]

It is easy to draw parallels with Achebe’s famous critique of the depiction of Africa in literature and Hollywood’s treatment of India and Indians; namely that the environment and its inhabitants serve the narratives of Westerners.[26] Achebe is also keen to demonstrate how damaging it is to be set up as Other to the West. Africa consistently appears as “‘the other world’, an antithesis of Europe, and therefore civilization,”[27] Achebe is disgusted by the Africa in literature and its serving a single purpose; to articulate Western paranoia thus denying its own history. Narratives involving Africa feature the horrific breakdown of morals in civilised, European explorers. Achebe takes issue with Africa merely appearing as an arena for Western experience in which the continent is rendered as a monolith. “Africa is a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity… Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”[28] Just as Africa is a zone of moral decay, India is the backdrop for Western epiphany. The country acts as a stage on which first-world angst and anxieties can play out and westerners liberate themselves.

Hollywood exploits preconceived ideas of spirituality in its portrayals of India. The funeral scene in The Darjeeling Limited, demonstrates this trend vehemently. The child’s death becomes only relevant in its articulation of the brother’s drama. This is made obvious in the end of the scene where a close-up shot of the brothers cuts to an almost identical one of them driving to their father’s funeral. The funeral has been referenced frequently is already understood as an event of significance. Thus, the flashback is understood as more meaningful than the Indian funeral. In addition, intrigue is heightened due to the immediacy and unexpected nature of the cut. The scene begins with the camera tracking the brothers in slow motion as they pass the villagers preparing the funeral. The villagers are almost frozen with minimal, slower movements; evoking Said’s proposal of a timeless Orient. As the camera tracks the brothers’ journey, the spectator recognises them as possessing authority and is aligned with them. Achebe states that the Africans are denied individuality instead making up the background, this tendency “eliminates the African as human.”[29] Achebe’s claim is easily transposed onto the funeral sequence. Ending the scene with the brothers’ close-up allows the viewer to engage and empathize with them and not with the Indians who are denied subjectivity. Hollywood depictions of India rarely use Indians as their protagonists.

The audio also twists the way Indian tradition is received to instead inform the scene as a liberating and Western experience. The funeral sequence is accompanied by ‘Strangers’ by the British band The Kinks. The action is perceived as less ‘foreign’ than if Indian music were used. Here Anderson does not wish to ostracize the viewer from the traditional Indian practices lest it deters their empathizing with the Americans. Music performed by The Kinks is used several times in the film, largely to punctuate the ‘meaningful’ parts of the movie. Indian music is used in instances of farce and confusion, infantilizing it as art and confirming India’s inferiority.

Said’s theory of Orientalism defines Hollywood’s depiction of the East as Other. Orientalism’s repertoire of images remains a profound source of ‘evidence’ for modern filmmakers. However, modern understanding of India also relies on Western self-indulgence. India is not only understood as a binary opposite of the West; interest in the country is largely derived from desires to exploit it of its assumed spirituality.
[1] Palestine Diary. ‘Edward Said on Orientalism’. Online Video Clip, YouTube. 28 October 2012. 13 February 2017.

[2] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). 19.

[3] Chinua Achebe, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (London: W. W. Norton and Co, 1988).

[4] Palestine Diary. ‘Edward Said on Orientalism’. YouTube

[5] Said, Orientalism. 259

[6] Palestine Diary, ‘Edward Said on Orientalism’. YouTube

[7] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (1775) (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1994.) 9.

[8] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality. 9-14.

[9] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-colonial Studies. (London: Routledge 1998). 210.

[10] Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post-colonial Studies, 210.

[11] The Darjeeling Limited. Dir. Wes Anderson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007.

[12] The Darjeeling Limited. Dir. Wes Anderson.

[13] Palestine Diary, ‘Edward Said on Orientalism’. YouTube.

[14] Elleke Boehme, ‘Transfiguring the Colonial Body in Post-colonial Narrative’ in Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Post-colonial Nation. (Manchester: Manchester Scholarship Online, 2012). 6.

[15] Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). 7.

[16] Alloula, The Colonial Harem. 116.

[17] Alloula, The Colonial Harem. 116.

[18] Alloula, The Colonial Harem. 118.

[19] Alloula, The Colonial Harem. 105

[20] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16:3 (1975) 6.

[21] Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’, 9.

[22] Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’, 8.

[23] Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’. 10

[24] Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’. 11.

[25] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972) 47.

[26] Achebe, An Image of Africa.

[27] Achebe, An Image of Africa.

[28] Achebe, An Image of Africa.

[29] Achebe, An Image of Africa.

by Joanna Mason

Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 20and lives in Bristol in England. Her favourite things are when dogs smile and European supermarkets. She’s also completely head over heels in love with Simon Pegg. Some of her favourite films are Amelie, Fight Club, Donnie Darko and anything directed by Wes Anderson, but this list is ever-growing. You can follow her on twitter @JOEYANANA if you like.


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