`Such a Long Journey' builds a wall of emotion

Review: The story of an Indian man's grace under life's pressures makes a vivid and, in the end, engrossing film.

March 24, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Life has thrown a lot of things at Gustad Noble, most of them not very pleasant.

Born into the Parsi middle class in Bombay, he's now relegated to working as a bank clerk and struggling to feed and clothe his family. His son is rebelling, his wife has taken to believing in magic, his daughter has malaria, and now a favor he did for an old friend could land him in jail.

But Noble lives up to his name, dealing as best he can with his life's many hassles and struggling to maintain some sort of personal equilibrium.

"Such a Long Journey," set on the eve of India's 1971 war with Pakistan that eventually led to the founding of Bangladesh, is all about dealing with tumult. Shot entirely on location in Bombay, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, the film benefits from the sure hand of Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson and a uniformly strong cast. The result is a film that immerses its audience in the Indian culture while telling a universally appealing story of grace under pressure.

The Nobles are a loving, if not always happy, family. Gustad (Roshan Seth) and his wife, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan) may quarrel, but he's perfected the art of making her laugh, quickly diffusing minor crises. But then their son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), decides he doesn't want to go to college. Worse, he revels in questioning his father's long-held beliefs, creating a rift in the family that's not so easily healed.

Things get worse, however, when Gustad agrees to perform some creative banking for a friend. The request seems harmless enough; just deposit a large sum of money into an account, in increments small enough to avoid detection by the authorities. It turns out, however, that the money has dangerous political overtones, and Noble's connection to it could threaten more than just his job.

"Such a Long Journey" is not always an easy film to embrace. It helps to have some knowledge of the political situation in the early 1970s, when rumors abounded that money earmarked for the fight to liberate East Pakistan (which eventually became Bangladesh) was ending up in the pockets of Indian politicians, possibly even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

But while following the money may help involve the audience, it's not the real center of the film. The more accessible story line, and the one that contains the story's emotional core, concerns a wall outside Noble's apartment building. Its status as something of a local landmark doesn't stop people passing on the street from using it as a urinal.

But the ever-adaptable Noble comes up with a solution when he meets a street artist (Ranjit Chowdhry) whose sidewalk religious paintings are constantly being walked on. Come over and paint on our wall, he urges, confident that no one will urinate on a wall decorated with pictures of the gods. The wall is turned into a religious shrine and the public urination stops, but soon a new threat to the wall arises.

Seth, perhaps best known to Western audiences for playing Nehru in director Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi," is marvelous as Noble, constantly underplaying the character and keeping his emotions in check. Chowdhry brings a welcome light touch to his philosopher-artist, and veteran actor Om Puri ("My Son the Fanatic") adds a glint of danger to his role as a political operative tracking the money.

`Such a Long Journey'

Starring Roshan Seth, Soni Razdan and Om Puri

Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson

Released by Shooting Gallery

Unrated (language)

Running time 112 minutes

Sun score ***

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