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A Complex, Compelling 'Journey'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2000


    'Such a Long Journey' Naseeruddin Shah carries Roshan Seth, while Om Puri lurks nearby. (Shooting Gallery)
A concrete wall slated for demolition. A middle-aged man (Roshan Seth) whose life is slowly turning into rubble. And two countries – India and Pakistan – fighting for the soul of Bangladesh.

These are the fascinating elements in "Such a Long Journey," an offbeat, piquant combination of political epic, family drama and situation comedy that's set in 1970s India.

Although the movie has the familiar earmarks of an Indian art film – the family as political microcosm, intergenerational conflict and the usual religious differences – there's a refreshingly unusual spirit at work. We become acquainted with a rich ensemble of characters, from government agents to babbling fools. And everything is brought satisfyingly to bear by a delicate performance from Roshan Seth.

He's Gustad Noble, a long-suffering office worker in the bustling, dirty city of Bombay, who has seen better days.

A descendent of the proud Parsis, a race that left Muslim persecution in Persia during the 8th century, he grew up with servants, doting parents and sweet memories. But as a family patriarch of modest means, he's come down a notch, working 24 years for the local bank.

Nevertheless, his outlook on life remains cheery, and his love for his family is unflagging. Also, he's particularly excited by the news that his son Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee) has been accepted at the IIT, the India Institute of Technology.

Things change.

While the newspapers report India's battles with Pakistan for territorial rights in Bangladesh, Gustad's personal problems proliferate.

The Bombay authorities announce plans to raze the concrete divider outside his apartment building, so that the already busy highway will be even closer to Gustad's front door. His son matter-of-factly declares he doesn't intend to go to IIT. And Gustad's daughter takes sick with malaria.

There's worse: a letter from Gustad's estranged friend Jimmy Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah), a retired army major, who has joined Indira Gandhi's secret service. Jimmy implores Gustad to surreptitiously deposit a large sack of money in his bank.

These are funds for a secret government project to finance a resistance group in Bangladesh, Jimmy tells him. Secrecy is vital. Gustad, who considers himself a dependable friend, feels a moral compunction to accept this dangerous assignment.

"I don't understand this world anymore," Gustad tells his wife Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), lamenting his son's shocking announcement and the possibility of getting involved with embezzlement. "What a world of wickedness it has become."

With help from his banker-friend, Mr. Dinshawji (Sam Dastor), Gustad deposits the money, little by little. His disappointment with his son becomes an outright squabble, causing Sohrab to leave home. And his daughter's condition worsens.

Dilnavaz becomes so upset at her family's downturn, she appeals to the old lady (Pearl Padamsee) upstairs for a little witchcraft assistance. But old Mrs. Kutpitia's solution has a moral quandary: Dilnavaz has to shift the bad luck to the family's retarded surrogate son, Tehmul (Kurush Deboo), by feeding him lime juice.

Seth, the Indian actor best known as Nehru in Sir Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi," lures you into this unusual world. Whether he's singing to soothe his upset wife or speaking with bottomless patience to the hapless Tehmul, he exudes a sort of good-hearted gravitas. And in a minor role as Jimmy's mysterious friend Ghulam, Om Puri shows why he's one of India's most charismatic actors. His presence gives special heft to the seriousness of Jimmy's unspoken mission.

Scriptwriter Sooni Taraporevala (who also wrote "Mississippi Masala") and director Sturla Gunnarsson, an Icelandic-born director from Canada, deftly intermingle the movie's many story lines, often intermixing tension with humor. During a heated moment at the dinner table, for instance, just after Sohrab has told his father he's not going to college, Dinshawji holds up a greasy chicken wishbone and asks: "Does anyone want to make a wish?" Gustad, still floored at his son's news, lamely raises a hand to break the bone with Dinshawji. The world-weary look on Gustad's face is priceless.

SUCH A LONG JOURNEY (R, 113 minutes) – Contains obscenity, violence, nudity and a sexual scene.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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