Lights, Camera, India
A-list actors shoot a quirky Hollywood film in Rajasthan, part of a new wave of several big ticket movies that are winding their way here
By Kaveree Bamzai
Owen Wilson makes $10 million a movie and his last three pictures (You, Me and Dupree, Cars, and Wedding Crashers) have made over $870 million at the box office. But as he stands with his photographer mother Laura, his distinctive straw-blonde hair tucked under a cap, he wears his leading man status lightly. As does Adrien Brody. The Oscar winner, in a cap, a fashionably dishevelled linen suit and photographer mother Sylvia Plachy in tow (what is it about Hollywood’s leading men and their photographer mothers?), is lurking in a quiet corner at the palace of Arvind Singh, former Maharana of Mewar.
It’s party time after a gruelling two-month shoot of The Darjeeling Limited, which began in Jodhpur and has now ended in Udaipur, tracing the journey to India of three brothers in search of their mother. All the three boys are here-the third, Jason Schwartzman, the wonderfully loopy actor who inhabits movies such as Shopgirl and I Heart Huckabees, is looking much lighter than his most recent character, Louis Augustus, of cousin Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. He’s all set to start shooting for a new movie, this time with Ben Stiller.
For those who thought friends and relatives stick to each other only in Bollywood, the unit of The Darjeeling Limited (the movie also stars Natalie Portman) is a living proof that six degrees of separation works in la-la land as well. Wilson and director Wes Anderson were roommates at the University of Austin, Texas, and this is their fourth film together. The movie has been written by Anderson, Schwartzman and Sofia’s brother Roman Coppola. Stiller is part of what is fondly known in Hollywood as the frat pack, a bunch of comedians-which includes Wilson and his younger brother Luke-who make broad blockbusters, usually with one another.
(Parts of the Darjeeling limited were shot in Nahar Magra, in a hunting lodge on the property of the former Maharana of Mewar)
But there are not that many laughs in The Darjeeling Limited, which in Anderson’s usual quirky style, features talking animals, lost parents and slightly deranged siblings. The brothers believe their father, played by Bill Murray-who went remarkably undiscovered in the two weeks he was shooting in Jodhpur-has been reborn as an albino leopard, and trace their mother to a convent where she teaches poor children. Recreated in Nahar Magra, in a hunting lodge on the property of the former Maharana of Mewar-which was closed for 40 years and cleaned up in eight days for the crew to use-the convent’s chapel was painstakingly put together in an open courtyard, using tangail saris, wooden benches from an antique warehouse in Jodhpur, and parakeets and pigeons brought all the way from the US. The level of detailing, says Aradhana Seth, who is working with Mark Friedberg on production design, is extraordinary. Anderson wanted to paint the train bogeys (The Darjeeling Limited is the name of the train the boys take to travel through India) in the style of trucks he had seen on Indian highways. Seth auditioned several painters before selecting one-who ended up painting portraits of the stars as well.
(India’s lenient union laws, exotic locales and talented technicians are a big draw for Hollywood producers)
Anderson has an old connection with India. When he and Wilson were in college, they spent hours listening to the stories of the local Cosmic Cup CafÃ© owner, 89-year-old Kumar Pallana. Pallana found his way into the duo’s first film, Bottle Rocket, and has made a fairly lucrative career for himself as an eternal oddball. India was always high on their agenda of places to shoot in-and though Pallana is not in the movie, Anderson’s other favourite, jewellery-designer-cum-actor Waris Ahluwahlia (from Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), is.
In Lydia Dean Pilcher, who is in the midst of an animated conversation with Mira Nair’s mother, Praveen, also a guest at the after party, he couldn’t have found a better producer. Pilcher clearly has a karmic connection with India (having produced three movies for Nair), a country Anjelica Huston-who was in Nair’s The Perez Family-is getting used to. At the party, Huston stands statuesque, her hair as straight and dark as it was in Prizzi’s Honour, for which she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, the third generation in her family to be so honoured. Shimmering in a turquoise brocade tunic, she shows no impact of the bouts of crying she has been through. Jane Buffett, wife of musician Jimmy, who has travelled with her to India, says there are days when she is inconsolable, unable to distance herself from her role in the movie.
Anderson has had an interesting career that mixes an arthouse sensibility with blockbuster stars. His first film Bottle Rocket, written with Wilson and starring him, was followed by Rushmore. After that, The Royal Tenenbaums, with its ensemble of fine actors, was well-received, while Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was less enthusiastically reviewed. Anderson, who has kept his other film, The Fantastic Mr Fox (based on Roald Dahl’s book) in limbo, has a lot riding on this film. For Wilson, now a big mainstream star, it’s an opportunity to show his artistic side-not that he minds being reminded of his more outrÃ© performances in movies like You, Me and Dupree, which made him a tabloid fixture with rumours of an affair with the then married Kate Hudson. He is in the midst of offering a role to Arvind Singh-he could be the Indian Jackie Chan, he insists.
India, which became known as a tough place to shoot in after the trouble that surrounded Deepa Mehta’s Varanasi shoot of Water, may finally be on the map of Hollywood as a film destination. For one thing, there are no union laws that prevent crews from shooting for well over 10 hours a day, as was clear from the shoot of A Mighty Heart last year. Then there are talented technicians who can reproduce the best standards in the world at much less the price. And hey, Johnny Depp, currently the biggest star in the world, wants to make Shantaram with Nair here. What could be better?