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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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Visual India

Last weekend, I joined with some friends for a night of Indian food and a screening of the Criterion release of The Darjeeling Limited on blu-ray.  It was a fun night all the way around.

After traveling to India several times, (always working, never for simple tourism), I've become very attached to Indian culture.  I'm certainly not an expert, but I enjoy the food, the art, the history, and most of all, speaking with the people there.  One is hard-pressed to find kinder, gentler and more interesting people than those who live in India.

India has become popular in America over the past few years.  I think that mass notice of Bollywood and its surrounding culture has had something to do with that it.  Personally, Bollywood song-and-dance films are [very] far from my favorite genre of cinema, but I do enjoy the energy they convey.  India is incredibly well-suited for such an indigenous film industry, because the country is so amazingly visual.

The visual beauty of India almost belies the poverty and grittiness of what everyday life is really like there.  The people are so colorfully arrayed, the landscape is so varied and the traditional architecture is so nuanced that it is harder to attain bad imagery than good imagery in such an environment.

I think that its sheer visual beauty has led to many Americans falling in love with the idea of India without ever facing the country itself.  I said as much to a German backpacker I spoke to at the Delhi airport earlier this year.  She was going home after several weeks in Goa, and she said to me "I don't see many Americans traveling in India.  Why do you think that is?"

Given the amount of business we do in India, I was surprised that Americans seemed underrepresented in a vacation hotspot like Goa, but I could understand why, and said as much in my response.

"I think that most Americans like the idea of India--the colors and the food.  They just aren't too crazy about the smell."

Possibly a harsh thing to say, but I still feel it to be true on principle.  India is a shocking country to visit upon one's first arrival into a nation where the air smells like burning cow dung as much as it smells like cinnamon.

But the sheer beauty of the country, and the beauty of soul which shines out of the eyes of its people, will charm any visitor into submission.  I was reminded of this while watching The Darjeeling Limited last night.  It made me excited that Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens in American theaters this week.  It made me ecstatic to return to India myself later this year.

The beauty of India can almost be called a gateway drug to the culture.  There is poetry in its harsh landscape and simple country dwellings.  India's cultural fabric is a frenetic tapestry of crowded streets and heart-stopping traffic; shouts of the street vendors, passive-aggressive inquiries from beggars and blindingly white smiles from inquisitive children.  The paradoxical contrast and cohesion of all these elements make it a country which lures in the curious and claims them for its own.  Whether by force of charm or the underlying mystery which such a culture presents to outsiders, India is an experience.

The principal characters in The Darjeeling Limited are so representative of how visitors are affected by the country.  That's one of the reasons why I love the film so much.

Francis (Owen Wilson) goes to "have an experience," but his purposeful strides from temple to temple, punctuated by side-trips for power adapters and painkillers hold him back from actually experiencing anything until he abandons his control issues by the end of the film..

Jack (Jason Schwartzman) distracts himself with his girlfriend in Europe and a temporary fling with a train attendant.  He allows his more carnal impulses to distract him from the larger picture of what is going on around him.  He allows the specific to totally detract from a full perspective.

And in the middle of it all is Peter (Adrien Brody), who seeks out novelties like a child, all the while resisting the responsibilities of being a father which await him at home.  He matures by the end of the film, but one wonders how he ever expected to get a cobra through customs.

As an American, it is my responsibility to represent my country and my fellow Americans in a positive way.  After all, we have set ourselves up as the guardians of world democracy, and it's the least we can do to be pleasant and teachable.  We cannot allow inconvenience, different or expectation to hold us back from visiting countries like India.

The world is huge.  Just think about it!  Consider the varying climates and cultures in India, China, Egypt, Germany, Britain!  And many people are content to spend their entire life living in one city, considering travel to be "for other people;" perhaps to be reserved as a reward given to one's self when too old to fully enjoy the experience.

Never settle for the sedentary life.  The world is there for a reason.  See it.  And visit India first.