Such a Long Journey, set in Bombay, India during 1971 and based on the novel by Rohinton Mistry, is a story of healing and reconciliation. And, despite the complex historical background underlying the film’s narrative tapestry, this is more of a character-driven tale than a plot-driven one. Also, although the movie is firmly entrenched in the real world, there is a hint of magical realism in the way director Sturla Gunnarsson and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala approach the material.
While it’s possible to enjoy and comprehend Such a Long Journey without any understanding of the context in which the movie transpires, such background makes the film’s themes more immediate and the subtext less murky. As the story begins, the third major conflict between perennial enemies India (which is primarily Hindu) and Pakistan (predominantly Muslim) is about to break out. At the time – late 1971 – Pakistan was in the midst of a civil war, with East Pakistan declaring itself independent and re-naming itself Bangladesh.
India, supporting the new nation, provided financial and military aid through agents from RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing of India’s Secret Service), but six million rupees earmarked for this cause vanished, possibly into a Swiss bank account held by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Another useful piece of background, which is mentioned during an introductory series of captions, relates to the Parsis. Persecuted by Muslims as far back at the 8th century, these people fled from Persia to India, where they found refuge. They follow their own religious belief system, which disallows intermarriage and demands a strict code of morality. When a Parsi dies, he is not buried; instead, his body is exposed within an unroofed tower (a Tower of Silence) and vultures are allowed to devour the corpse. Although their numbers
are dwindling, Parsis are held in high regard in Bombay (where most of them reside) and throughout India.
The main character in Such a Long Journey, Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth), is a Parsi, and many of his actions are colored by the code of beliefs he has inherited. When his eldest son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), disappoints him by refusing to go to a technical institute, Gustad refuses to acknowledge his existence. Yet he treats the local idiot, Tehmul (Kurush Deboo), with a degree of respect that no one else exhibits. When disappointed or uncertain, he retreats into memories of a comfortable and sheltered past. Meanwhile, Gustad’s wife, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), unhappy at the way in which her family is falling
apart, consults a mystical woman who lives upstairs. The old witch proposes a number of spells that may prove useful in remedying Dilnavaz’s situation. And, outside on the sidewalk, a pavement artist (Ranjit Chowdhry) transforms a wall that was used as a urinal into a religious mural that becomes a public shrine.
Such a Long Journey contains aspects of a political thriller, although the ultimate purpose of these scenes is to affect a transformation in Gustad’s character. An old friend and member of the RAW, Jimmy Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah), contacts Gustad after several years of silence and requests a favor. He wants Gustad to meet with his right hand man, Ghulam (Om Puri), receive a package, then act on instructions contained within. Gustad agrees, but, after learning what’s in the parcel, he recognizes that Jimmy’s “favor” could
jeopardize his career and his family’s safety.
In addition to the thriller elements, which are not emphasized, Such a Long Journey maintains its share of dramatic material. The tone ranges from playful to contemplative, and the screenplay is liberally sprinkled with humor.
There’s also a fair amount of symbolism, some of which is heavy-handed. Director Gunnarsson (whose work is not well-known in the United States) and screenwriter
Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala) wanted Such a Long Journey to marry both cinematic and literary elements, and, for the most part, they have succeeded in that goal.
In its own quiet way, the central theme of Such a Long Journey has to do with the need to embrace emotions, especially sadness, and not run from them. In a telling flashback, Gustad claims that he will never shed tears because it is unmanly. Since he lives by this creed, there are times when he is unreasonably stern and cold. Only when events force him to confront his grief and acknowledge his frailty is he able to re-discover important things in his life that he thought to be forever lost to him.
One reason for the film’s effectiveness is the strength of the cast. Roshan Seth gives a nuanced performance as Gustad, a far more complex character than we first suspect. He’s not the usual domineering, patriarchal Indian, but a deeply conflicted individual who has trouble healing emotional wounds. Seth, who North American viewers may recognize from Gandhi and My Beautiful Launderette, captures the richness of Gustad’s character. Also in the film is the great Indian actor Om Puri (star of the upcoming East Is East), who, over the course of a 25 year career, has worked for directors Satyajit Ray, Richard Attenborough, Deepa Mehta, and Mike Nichols. Puri does not have a central role, but his presence is welcome. The other actors, including Soni Razdan as Gustad’s wife, Naseeruddin Shah as Jimmy, Sam Dastor as Gustad’s friend and co-worker, and Kurush Deboo as the idiot, contribute fine supporting work. Through their interaction with Gustad, these secondary characters bring out aspects of his personality while adding fullness and body to their own.
Such a Long Journey is an excellent character study with enough of a storyline to keep the plot-oriented viewer involved. It may not be a perfect motion picture, but it is worth the trip.
Such a Long Journey BY ROGER EBERT
Gustad Noble: Roshan Seth
Dilnavaz Noble: Soni Razdan
Ghulam: Om Puri
Major Bilimoria: Naseeruddin Shah
Pavement artist: Ranjit Chowdhry
Shooting Gallery presents a film directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Written by Sooni Taraporevala. Based on the novel by Rohinton Mistry. Photographed by Jan Kiesser. Edited by Jeff Warren. Music by Jonathan Goldsmith. Running time: 113 minutes. No MPAA rating (suitable for mature teenagers).
India is the closest we can come in today’s world to the London of Charles Dickens, with its poverty and wealth side by side in a society teeming with benevolence and intrigue, eccentrics and thieves, the suspect and the saintly. “Such a Long Journey,” filmed on location in Bombay, is a film so rich in atmosphere it makes Western films look pale and
underpopulated. It combines politics, religion, illness and scheming in the story of one family in upheaval, and is very serious and always amusing.
The story, set in 1971 at the time of the war between India and Pakistan, is based on the novel of the same name by Rohinton Mistry, an Indian now living in Toronto. I haven’t read it, but I have read his latest novel, the magnificent A Fine Balance, which has the same ability to see how political issues impact the lives of the ordinary and the obscure. Mistry’s novels have the droll irony of Dickens, as when a legless beggar and a
beggarmaster turn out to be brothers, and the beggarmaster is so moved that he buys the beggar a better cart on which to push himself around.
“Such a Long Journey” takes place mostly in and around a large apartment complex, its courtyard and the street, which the municipal authorities want to widen so that even more choking diesel fumes can cloud the air. We meet the hero, Gustad (Roshan Seth), in the process of defending the old concrete wall that protects his courtyard from the street, and later he strikes a bargain with an itinerant artist (Ranjit Chowdhry), who covers the wall with paintings from every conceivable religious tradition, with the thought that all of the
groups represented will join in defending the wall.
A greater struggle is in store for Gustad. A Parsi whose family has fallen on hard times, works in a bank, and is asked by Major Jimmy (Naseeruddin Shah), a friend from long ago, to hide and launder some money. The go-between (Om Puri) implies these are official Indian government funds being secretly transferred to finance the war against Pakistan in Bangladesh. (The movie doesn’t require us to know much about modern history in the subcontinent, since the story works entirely in terms of the personal lives of its characters.)
Gustad is a good and earnest man, who has adopted the local idiot as a kind of surrogate son, who is the unofficial mayor of his building, who is always on call to help his neighbors, who dotes on his little daughter, and bursts with pride that his son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee) has been accepted by the Illinois Institute of Technology. Alas, Sohrad doesn’t want to go to IIT; he hates engineering and wants to be an artist, and Gustad implores him to reconsider.
Gustad’s relationship with his wife has elements of an Indian “Honeymooners.” The kitchen is her turf, where she defiantly spends long hours in consultation with a neighbor woman who Gustad considers to be a witch (i.e., she has a different set of superstitions than his own). Their marriage is strong when it needs to be, as when their daughter falls ill with malaria. All of these stories are told against the backdrop of the others who live in the apartment complex, the street vendors outside, and those who are understood to have claims to portions of the courtyard or sidewalk. There is great poverty in India, but because it is so common, it’s more of a condition of life than a particular shame, and Gustad is on easy terms with the people who live in, as well as on, his street.
Roshan Seth is not a name well known in the West, but his face is familiar; he played Nehru in “Gandhi,” the heroine’s father in “Mississippi Masala,” the father in “My Beautiful Launderette,” and it is only poetic justice that he starred in the film of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. In this role (which won him a Canadian Genie as the year’s best actor), he plays an everyman, an earnest, worried, funny character always skirting on the edge of disaster, exuberantly immersed in his life. The way he masterminds the defense of the
precious wall is brilliant, but the way he deals with its fate is even more touching, because it is simply human.
The director, Sturla Gunnarsson, is Icelandic, suggesting the universality of this story; the writer, Sooni Taraporevala, also wrote “Mississippi Masala” and “Salaam Bombay.” Their film is interesting not simply in terms of its plot (the politics, the money) but because of the medium it moves through–the streets of Bombay. It suggests a society that has more
poverty than ours, but is not necessarily poorer, because it has a richer texture of daily life. “American Beauty” could not be an Indian story; it would be too hard to imagine Indian city dwellers with that much time to brood and isolate.
FILM REVIEW; A Life as Topsy-Turvy As the Streets of Bombay
Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth), the hero of Sturla Gunnarsson’s ”Such a Long Journey,” is, is surname notwithstanding, a timid, confused, decidedly ordinary man. He’s a sort of Parsee Willy Loman, putting in his time as a bank clerk, quarreling with his eldest son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), and daydreaming, in sepia tones over a moody swing soundtrack, of his privileged youth and his absent friend, the swashbuckling soldier Jimmy Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah). To lead a decent, ordinary life is not so easy in the Bombay of 1971, with the third war with Pakistan on the horizon and the filth and corruption of the city lapping at every doorstep.
”Such a Long Journey,” adapted from a novel by Rohinton Mistry, sometimes feels as crowded as the Bombay streets on which it was so beautifully filmed. Gustad’s quiet petit-bourgeois life teems with incident and emotional complication. In addition to filial rebellion and rumors of war, he must contend with his wife’s resentments, his daughter’s malaria, the unpredictable behavior of his mentally ill neighbor and the clownishness of a lecherous co-worker. On top of all this, the shadowy Bilimoria, an agent in a covert branch of the Indian military, has enlisted Gustad in a confusing (to him and to us) scheme to funnel money to the Bangladeshi resistance.
In following all this, it may help to know something about the recent political history of the Indian subcontinent, and about the place of the Parsee minority in Bombay society. (The Parsee are descendants of Zoroastrians who fled from Persia to India in the eighth century.)
But like a good novel, ”Such a Long Journey” imparts a great deal of fascinating information in the course of telling its story. It’s rich in detail and character, and soaked in the atmosphere of its time and place.
The movie, which opens today at the Sony State, is also studded with memorable scenes and arresting performances, most notably Mr. Seth’s. His Gustad is a man who without undergoing a dramatic transformation — he is consistently anxious, temperamental and mistrustful — nonetheless manages to win our sympathy. Soni Razdan gives a similarly complex performance as his impatient, superstitious wife, Dilnavaz. As Bilimoria’s shadowy associate, the great Om Puri, with his granite pockmarked face, provides a ground bass of sorrowful stoicism to anchor Gustad’s antic worrying.
The main problem with ”Such a Long Journey” is its storytelling. There is simply too much happening, and Mr. Gunnarsson is not very good at interweaving or subordinating plots. Gustad’s life, which should be a tightening tangle of complication, instead feels like one thing after another. The emotional force that should impel us toward the eventful never accumulates, and the result is that a film that might be devastating and unforgettable is merely touching.
SUCH A LONG JOURNEY
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson; written by Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Rohinton Mistry; director of photography, Jan Kiesser; edited by Jeff Warren; music by Jonathan Goldsmith; production designer, Nitin Desai; produced by Paul Stephens and Simon MacCorkindale; released by the Shooting Gallery. At the Sony State, Broadway at 45th Street. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Roshan Seth (Gustad Noble), Soni Razdan (Dilnavaz Noble), Om Puri (Ghulam), Naseeruddin Shah (Jimmy Bilimoria), Ranjit Chowdhry (the Pavement Artist), Sam Dastor (Dinshawji), Kurush Deboo (Tehmul), Vrajesh Hirjee (Sohrab Noble), Pearl Padamsee (Mrs. Kutpitia) and Shazneen Damania (Roshan Noble).