What happens when you choose to see a country only through the prism of its art? In the case of Wes Anderson and India, what you get are vintage-themed love letters to specific artistic works, ranging from Pahari miniature painting to Satyajit Ray's films.
Anderson's fascination with the India of his imagination is patently evident in his recent set of four short films made for Netflix, particularly in The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Poison. Both are set in colonial India and feature Indian characters (quite deliberately played by non-Indians, despite Dev Patel being part of the ensemble). However, Anderson has been incorporating elements of Indian art into his films for years.
In a 2007 interview with The Statesman, Anderson said of Satyajit Ray, “He is the reason I came here (to India) in the first place, but his films have also inspired all my other movies in different ways.” Anderson was talking to the newspaper ahead of the release of The Darjeeling Limited (2007), which follows three brothers who come from America to India in search of their mother, and end up taking a train journey across the country. Why “Darjeeling Express” ends up in Rajasthan is a problem from pedants, but the central idea of a train journey that ends up serving up a revelation to the protagonist was one that Anderson got from Ray’s film Nayak. Anderson also dedicated The Darjeeling Limited to Ray.
There’s a hint of a tribute to Nayak in the magnificent Asteroid City, in which there’s a section shot in black and white, set in a train, featuring an actor. While Nayak had Uttam Kumar playing the role of the famous actor, in Asteroid City, it’s Scarlett Johansson.
One of Anderson’s favourite Ray films is Charulata (1964), starring Madhabi Mukherjee in the titular role, and in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson included Ray’s composition ‘Charu’s theme’ in the soundtrack. Another role of Mukherjee’s that appears to have influenced Anderson is that of Karuna in Kapurush (1965). The sunglasses that Johansson’s Midge Campbell wears in Asteroid City have a distinct resemblance, though that might also be because both characters are from the same era.
For The Grand Budapest Hotel’s (2014) opulent and pastel-hued aesthetic, Anderson said he drew inspiration from Jaipur, known as the Pink City, and the ornate architecture of the Hawa Mahal. In a New York Times interview, Anderson explained, “The red sandstone palace in Jaipur, India, with its five-story pyramidal shape, built-in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, is one of the most beautifully symmetrical and colour-saturated buildings I have seen.”
The other city that has fascinated Anderson is Calcutta (as Kolkata was known until 2001). In his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story, 'The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar', Anderson changed the setting from Bombay to Calcutta.
A whimsical homage to Satyajit Ray's cinema can be found in Asteroid City, when the brainiac kids invited to the Junior Stargazer convention entertain themselves with a memory game. The game they play is effectively taken from Ray's Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). “We stole that absolutely wholesale from Satyajit Ray, from Days And Nights in the Forest. It’s a great movie,” Anderson told Letterboxd.
Bombay Talkie (1970) is not the most illustrious of Merchant-Ivory productions, but the film had an unforgettable song-and-dance sequence featuring a gigantic typewriter, Shashi Kapoor and Helen. The earworm of a song was composed by Shankar-Jaikishan and sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar. Anderson used ‘Typewriter, Tip Tip Tip’ in The Darjeeling Limited’s soundtrack.
In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, there is an extended flashback in which Ben Kingsley (the British, half-Indian actor is best known for playing Mahatma Gandhi because of his fantastic performance in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film) recounts how he journeyed to meet a reclusive yogi. The actor stands in front of a backdrop that looks distinctly Indian because of the colour palette and ikat-esque patterns. A panel is removed to show a strip in which details from Kingsley’s story are shown in an animation sequence. The colours used, the linework for the architecture as well as the style in which the clouds are drawn all in the style of Pahari miniatures. There’s also a tiny, mechanical tiger that feels like a nod to Tipu’s Tiger, the mechanical wooden toy made for the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan.
A section of Henry Sugar... is set in a forest where a yogi (played by an almost unrecognisable Richard Ayoade) lives in a mud hut. The mud hut is decorated with beautiful designs drawn from Mandana folk art, which adorn the floor, walls and hearth. Traditional to parts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the intricate symmetrical drawings are drawn to protect the home and welcome the gods.
One of Anderson's recurring motifs is the seersucker print, which has a deep connection to Indian design. The word “seersucker” is believed to be an adaptation of “sheer-shakkar" in Persian and the Sanskrit “ksheer-sharkara”, meaning "milk and sugar." The lightweight fabric that gained popularity during the colonial era in British India holds a distinct place not only in Anderson's personal style – he has been wearing seersucker suits to his premieres from Moonrise Kingdom (2012) to Asteroid City – but also in the attire of his beloved characters. From early films such as Rushmore (1998) to his most recent project, seersucker is everywhere.