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Sugar Poison

There’s some sugar and poison that’s found a home on Netflix lately.

HENRY SUGAR1: His name is Henry Sugar. I think people ought to know about what he has done for the world.

That is a clip from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, one of four short films by Wes Anderson based on the stories of Roald Dahl - Henry Sugar, Poison, the Swan and the Rat Catcher

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

From an Indian perspective Henry Sugar and Poison are the most intriguing. Wes Anderson has long been fascinated with India. He made films like Darjeeling Limited set in India.

DARJEELING1: What are you doing in this place? I think originally we came here on a spiritual journey.

Darjeeling Limited wasn’t just set in India. It was also a cinematic salute to Indian master film maker Satyajit Ray using his music in the score.


Henry Sugar is partly set in Kolkata. That’s where a man called Imdad Khan shows up to tell the confounded doctors that he can perform a medical miracle

HENRY SUGAR2: Gentlemen I am a man who can see without using his eyes. “He saw it,” I cried. “He saw that trolley which is absolutely unbelievable.”

In that film India is shown as the fount of mysterious wisdom like powers that let a man see without using his eyes. The white people in the film are awed by those powers and grateful for a chance to learn about them.

In Poison we see the other extreme of the relationship between East and West enacted by pretty much the same cast, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dev Patel where an English man in British India thinks a deadly poisonous snake is lying on his stomach

POISON1: You don’t really mean there’s a krait lying on your stomach right now asleep? Yes.

An Indian doctor tries to figure out how to save him without startling the snake into biting him but he gets no gratitude in return. Instead he gets a stream of racist invective for his pains.

In odd ways the two stories, both set in colonial times bookend the set. And they use Anderson’s fabled colour palette to show that encounter between East and West in very different lights. One is almost sweet, inspiring Henry Sugar a rather callous man in the beginning to find his better self.

POison is bitter, rapaciously using the Indian doctor for his own needs and then tossing him aside. It’s made worse by the fact that Anderson actually makes us care for the man who might have a snake on his stomach before we see his real colours.

They are like mirror images of each other. And in their own way to me one is no less disturbing than the other. In neither case does the Indian get to really enjoy the fruits of his knowledge.

What Roald Dahl intended is hard to tell. He was a complicated man. His works have come in for an extreme makeover these days, rewritten to make them less offensive for 21st century audiences. It’s not just the anti Semitism he was infamous for. Words like fat and ugly are gone. And Matilda once went sailing with Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. No longer.

NR1: And that was changed to the more noble Jane Austen and John Steinbeck. And I just looked at that and I said you know you don’t want to walk down this road because you have no idea how grim it’s going to get.

That’s Indian writer and literary critic Nilanjana Roy who says changing a writer’s work, especially one who is dead, is problematic.

NR2: consent is still important, even for horrible people, you know?

And also it sets you down a slippery slippery slope.

NR3: The second problem with the Roald Dahl kind of changes is people are doing it unaware of the demands that might be made by far more toxic forces. You have nowhere to go if then you know groups in the UK say that LGBTQ representation in books is not acceptable to us because it cuts against our family values. 

Wes Anderson too told Rolling Stone once a work is out in public even the artist shouldn’t be retouching it. And these short films keep it literally in Dahl’s own words. Colonialism can come with a beaming smile or fangs bared but the teeth show either way.

NR4: A lot of this thing about changing the past to suit the present. Don't do it. Let the past remain when it's wrong. As a cautionary tale, as an indicator of where we don't want to go.

In the end warts and all that was Roald Dahl. You can’t unDahl him without making him terrifically dull.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW