A scene from 'Such a Long Journey'
Courtesy Photo
*** stars 113 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, March 24, 2000
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson

Starring Roshan Seth, Om Puri, Soni Razdan & Ranjit Chowdhry

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Reticent family man faces rebellious son, embezzled funds in lightly comic 'Journey'

By Rob Blackwelder

Capturing an indelible image of everyday life in the teeming, sweaty streets of urban Bombay, circa 1971, "Such a Long Journey" is lightly humorous fable about a modest, honorable and frustrated family man caught in a more complicated and less satisfying life than he ever imagined.

He's estranged from his cynical, strong-headed son over the boy's choice against attending technical college. He's praying for the retreat of his young daughter's malaria. He's stuck in the middle of a civic power struggle over the planned demolition of the wall that provides precious tranquillity to the courtyard of his clamorous apartment building -- the weather-beaten hulk of an imperial-era mansion.

This reticent, bank clerk named Gustad (Roshan Seth) hardly needs anything else on his plate when a long-absent friend -- who claims to be a spy in the war against Pakistan -- asks him to help laundering a large sum of (possibly embezzled) money through his bank.

Pulled in several directions at once and torn between loyalty to and distrust, Seth (who looks distractingly like Peter Sellers made up as an Indian in 1968's "The Party") gives a fine performance as a buttoned-down man overwhelmed by his circumstances.

Based on a novel by one Rohinton Mistry, "Journey" is a simple but surprisingly beautiful film, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson (a Canadian of Icelandic decent -- go figure!) with a hearty sense of history, culture and atmosphere. Gustad's memories of his well-to-do, imperial-era childhood vividly contrast the movie's present, which is full of dust, filth and the threat of air raids. ("There's going to be a war," Gustad says, as casually as if he's talking about the weather.)

Amidst all this chaos are two endearing sanctuaries: The vivid and colorful work of a gifted sidewalk chalk artist persuaded by Gustad to decorate his doomed wall with holy icons, and Gustad's quiet and tender relationship with his pretty and patient wife (Soni Razdan).

Razdan's intelligent and preoccupied performance is the movie's touchstone, as she works behind the scenes -- even dabbling in black magic -- to try to protect her family from the whirlwind around them. She also shares with Seth the movie's most memorable moment -- an affectionate heart-to-heart, sitting cross-legged on their bed, staring at each other with a mix of concern and familiar comfort.

"Such a Long Journey" suffers occasionally at the hands of a couple especially obnoxious and intrusive characters (a hyperactive, mentally retarded neighbor and a dirty old man at the bank), which serve as confounding contrasts to the subtle and simple qualities that make the film so involving, even to those unfamiliar with the settings or the particulars of 30-year-old Indian politics.

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