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Cow-spotting!

April 23, 2008 16:03 IST
I don't know if it's sacred, but it's a cow alright. I call the game cow-spotting. These days, if it's a film set in India, sooner or later you'll find the cow. Cows holding up traffic are irresistible lens fodder for a director out to find the 'authentic' Indian experience.

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited is set on a train, but there's a cow nonetheless (and a snake!). Thankfully, the cow doesn't hold up the train, though the snake does get loose in it.

The point is, whether it's about dysfunctional brothers on a spiritual journey across India (The Darjeeling Limited) or a romantic comedy about offshore outsourcing (Outsourced) or a lower caste servant girl fighting a predatory landlord (Vanaja)... if it's about India, you've got to have the phlegmatic, traffic-stopping cow.

In fact, they might all star the same cow. All three films were made recently and by some strange cosmic twist of fate have landed up in theaters at the same time like the long lost brothers from Amar Akbar Anthony.

In those formulaic tearjerkers, brothers get separated at birth and end up in different households meant to span the social spectrum -- rich vs poor, or Hindu, Muslim, Christian or police inspector, bank robber.

The Darjeeling Limited obviously is the rich brother. It ended up in the palace -- part of film royalty, directed by Wes Anderson, co-written by Roman Coppola and his cousin Jason Schwartzman and Anderson.

Outsourced is the indie brother directed by John Jeffcoat, a Seattle filmmaker making his first film after spending a semester in South Asia.

Vanaja, though it looks gorgeous, is definitely the poor brother, a student film by engineer-turned-filmmaker Rajnesh Domalpalli, made as part of his MFA programme at Columbia University with an all-amateur cast.

But they all have the cow. Vanaja also has an elephant. Darjeeling, as mentioned before, has a snake and the pug prints of a man-eating tiger. As far as the menagerie goes though, I guess it's definitely an improvement on Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom where we got monkey brains in India.

In fact, monkey brains are so 1984. These three films say a lot about America's current fascination with India and how far India has come in the American imagination. Indian actress Ayesha Dharker stars in Outsourced as a feisty young call centre worker. As a teenager, she played the daughter of rickshaw pullers in Ronald Joffe's City Of Joy.

She remembers the studios re-cut that movie to "fit their idea of what India was about -- you know the American comes and provides the solutions." In Outsourced, Dharker's Asha is the one with the answers. She holds the key to bringing down the mysterious MPI (Minutes per Incident). She tells her American boss Todd, who has come to teach them about America, that he needs to learn a thing or two about India first.

What Wes Anderson says he learned about India while making The Darjeeling Limited was "you can't control India, you have to embrace it." That means a stranger wanders into the middle of a shot with Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman. Even as Anderson goes, "Hey, we are shooting," the man unperturbed walks in front of the camera, in between the actors, and keeps going without even pausing.

"We kept the shot," says Anderson. "It looked so natural." Moral of the story -- even if India is the backdrop, you can't keep it out of the storyline anymore. It will wander in (much like a cow).

In a sense, you could say finally India gets respect -- not just an exotic locale but as a bona fide player. Traditionally, when the West went to India, India's main role was to be a catalyst for some life-changing experiences for the Western visitor. Patrick Swayze found meaning to his life as a doctor in the leper colonies of Calcutta in The City Of Joy Judy Davis Adela Quested found horror in the Marabar Caves of A Passage To India. Then they all went back home. India just stayed, waiting to help its next celluloid tourist find his moment of zen.

Nowadays, that celluloid tourist might just as well be the NRI prodigal coming home or the American born desi feeling safe to reconnect with his roots now that you can get Coca Cola and Pizza Hut in India. The Darjeeling Limited is in that sense a throwback. It's about white Americans encountering India. Anderson spoofs the brothers saying, "They say they are interested in India but not really, they are hardly interested in each other."

But the fact remains that India, as seen through a rushing train, is picture postcard beautiful, the dusky chai-tea-or-me stewardess who entrances Jason Schwartzman's character gets to disappear into the darkness (just a fleeting one-night stand, a transit stop in his 'spiritual' journey). But Anderson, who had never been to India before embarking on The Darjeeling Limited, says the best he could do is tell a story that "is authentic from our point of view. India made a huge impression on us."

Rajnesh Domalpalli says when he made Vanaja, he was trying show the real India he knew -- "harsh but beautiful." He says he knows it's hard for his Western audiences to grasp the cultural nuances of servants in India. "I can't explain how, even at my own house, they can't sit at the table," says Domalpalli. On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much authenticity.

Some Indians have flailed him for washing the community's dirty laundry in public by making a film about caste, class, exploitation. "I deliberately called my character Vanaja," says Domalpalli. "It means water lily -- something beautiful that grows out of muck."

The irony is: Though Vanaja is probably the closest to Indian soil, it's going to have the hardest time being shown in India. Vanaja is a film set in rural India, it has no stars and is in the regional language of Telugu. No one is interested in village dramas anymore.

In a way, Vanaja is a throwback to the seventies new wave of realistic Indian cinema that tackles Issues with a capital I and have fallen out of vogue. The Darjeeling Limited is a valentine to Passage to India set -- the old school of "the incredible summer I spent in India (and the beautiful girl I met there)."

Outsourced is the film of the new Thomas Friedman world-is-flat India or what Dharker calls a "romance between two countries, rather than two people."

But the one constant is the sacred cow. If you put a cow in a scene, you are automatically summing up the complexity of India living in several centuries at once. The cow is the stand-in for old India, unchanging at some level, even amidst all the swirling change.

"Sure, Outsourced has the cows," says Dharker. "But we do have cows on the street in India. But we also have call centres." And in one scene in Outsourced, the cow is actually in the call centre.

Ludicrous, you say? Think again. It's reassuring. It tells the nervous Westerner that, nuclear power or not, job-sucking India can be brought to a standstill by a cow. So it can't be that threatening. It tells the Indian (especially the nostalgic ones in the Diaspora) that McDonaldised as India might be getting, some things remain unchanging.

And who could have a beef with that?

I just hope it's getting some royalties out of this.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Sandip Roy hosts Up Front, a culture radio program on KALW 91.7 in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is associate editor with Pacific News Services and New California Media. He has won the Katha Prize for Indian American fiction.

Sandip Roy