REVIEW: Indian Beauty: "Such a Long Journey" Chronicles Middle-Age Strife in 1970s Suburban Bombay
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/3.30.2000) -- "All life's problems," a dying man tells Gustad Noble, "begin whenever we look for permanence."
The words serve as both lesson and warning for Gustad, the put-upon hero of Sturla Gunnarsson's "Such a Long Journey," and all of India as well. The 1998 English-language film is part of The Shooting Gallery film series, the mission of which is to adopt good films from the lost world of overlooked movies -- those film festival favorites left orphaned by distributors whose definition of quality is something that fits their "niche." At any rate, what they've passed up on now is a densely layered family saga, an ambitious work that deftly covers expansive ground.
Before the first scene, titles explain that the Parsis, forced to choose between Islam and death in the 8th century, escaped Persia and fled to what is now western India. Centuries ahead of Europeans, they created the city of Bombay as an engineering and architectural marvel.
But in 1971, when the story takes place, there is little progressive greatness in evidence. Bombay, a generation after the British pulled out of India, is overcrowded, dirty and zapping the soul out of its people. As the film opens, Gustad (Roshan Seth, perhaps the best known Indian actor to the West, recognizable for his work in films like Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," Stephen Frears' "My Beautiful Laundrette" and Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala") is complaining about municipal plans to tear down a crumbling but elegant wall outside his apartment building to a policeman -- who breaks off the conversation to chase off a man who is urinating on it.
Gustad, a bank clerk who has been on the job for 24 years, is losing his grip on his family. His wife, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), is worn down by the tug-of-war between he and their son (Kerush Deboo), who Gustad wants to force into an engineering career, and he himself is frustrated with the meek, tattered apartment they call home.
But Gustad's life is about to be turned upside down -- and maybe that's not such a bad thing -- when his long lost best friend Jimmy Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah) resurfaces after a decade of silence. He claims to be working for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by clandestinely working for freedom in neighboring Bangladesh. Through a contact (Om Puri), Jimmy asks Gustad to secretly and illegally funnel large sums of money into a bank account.
Gustad has his suspicions, but sees this as a test of loyalty to his old friend. His family thinks it's utter crap, and urges him to drop the assignment. His son even has a good suggestion: "If this is government money, let's use it for all the things the government should be doing, like replacing the water tanks and cleaning up the streets." Well said. But instead, Gustad follows through with the scheme and his son, tired of pressure from his dad, runs away from home.
"Such a Long Journey" is ambitious in that it attempts to address much of the cultural tapestry of India -- ethnic strife, urban degradation and religious conflict. Normally, this would be too much for a filmmaker to tackle, but Gunnarsson (director mainly of TV movies, like "Joe Torre: Curveballs Along the Way" and "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol") shows remarkable intelligence, working off a sharply written script by Sooni Taraporevala, adapted from a novel by Rohinton Mistry.
The key to this movie is Seth's portrayal of Gustad. He's a complicated character, with many failings. This isn't "Life With Father," where dad is a paragon of virtue and gentlemanly ambition; Gustad is simply wrong much of the time. He takes a belt to his son; he occasionally berates his wife and he cowers when given the opportunity to help a man injured in a street accident.
But there's no doubt he is a good man. Gustad is sympathetic to the retarded man who wanders the neighborhood; he longs to feel true loyalty and friendship, even if it is from a suspected terrorist; and he does, indeed, love his family, staying by his malaria-ridden daughter with steadfast love, or cutting short another bull-headed argument with a tearful hug. He can also be benevolent, understanding both his lecherous co-worker and the voluptuous object of that man's affection.
It's interesting that "Such a Long Journey" is enjoying a limited release the week that "American Beauty" wins a slew of Oscars. Seth and Razdan deliver performances as deep and unpredictable as Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Both films center on middle-aged men trying to navigate their families toward an idyllic, impossible permanence. And considering the political and class turmoil Gustad lives within, Lester Burnham's troubles seem silly by comparison.
[G. Allen Johnson is a film critic for the San Francisco Examiner. He has also written for the Bloomington Herald Times, Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Daily News and Indianapolis Star.]