Such a Long Journey (review)

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Small Betrayals

Talk about an international production. Such a Long Journey is directed by an Icelander, was financed with Canadian money, and is set in India and stars an Indian cast. With that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise that the story it tells is universal.
In 1971, India was about to involve itself in the civil war in Pakistan, which was itself formerly part of India. While this political turmoil rages, one proud and compassionate man deals with the small betrayals all around him. Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth: Gandhi) — a Parsi, the ethnic Persians in India who have traditionally been civil servants — has seen better times. Before Indian independence, when he was a child, his family was quite well to do under British rule, and warm, golden memories of this time haunt him now, in his life of relative squalor. His wife, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), vents her frustration with his many idiosyncrasies: the books that clutter their small apartment, the heavy black paper still protecting the windows, leftover from a war nine years earlier. His teenaged son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), refuses to attend the prestigious technology institute his father pushed him to apply to, and instead — to Gustad’s dismay — wants to study the arts. His young daughter, Roshan (Shazneed Damania), takes ill with malaria. His best friend, Jimmy (Naseeruddin Shah), has disappeared without a trace. And as if all that weren’t enough, the city wants to knock down the wall that keeps the teeming masses of Bombay out of the courtyard of his apartment complex, just so they can widen the road.

Based on the award-winning novel by Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey is an oddball combination of domestic drama and black comedy with a touch of the crime caper, but it’s a highly satisfying one. Director Sturla Gunnarsson balances the seemingly opposing story forces adroitly, so that at times you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Dilnavaz tries to patch up the relationship between her son and her husband… using the witchy talents of her neighbor, Mrs. Kutpitia (Pearl Padamsee). The mysterious letter that arrives from Jimmy, talking of political intrigue, the impending war, and “national security,” snares Gustad into endangering his position of responsibility at the Central Bank of India by asking him to accept a risky mission on behalf of his old friend — and that enduring friendship is reason enough for the well-meaning but rather naive Gustad to agree. The bundle of money that arrives next becomes a factor in Gustad’s upset with his wife, an alternately humorous and dangerous scheme with his pal at the bank, Dinshawji (Sam Dastor), and even inadvertently involves the unfortunate Tehmul (Kurush Deboo), the damaged young man who lives in Gustad’s apartment building and spends his days wandering the courtyard.

Such a Long Journey is perhaps a little overlong, dragging a bit in the middle. But in the end it is a profound and moving story of surviving betrayal. By the time Gustad finally removes the black paper covering the windows of his apartment, letting in the golden sunlight for the first time in years, we know that he has his first chance for genuine happiness since the cheerful memories of his childhood.

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