Such a Long Journey is set in Bombay in 1971, shortly before the war between India and Pakistan. Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth) is as middle-class as they come: A bank teller for 20 years, he works hard to support his wife, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), and children. But such is the poverty of Bombay that even such solid white-collar citizens live in a neighborhood where the poor piss and shit on the street and beggars stand on every corner.
The Nobles are Parsis, a Persian ethnic minority that is both a long-established part of Indian society and inevitably always a bit separate. Their life seems humble yet comfortable. But there are problems lurking beneath the surface. Most aggravating at first is Gustad's conflict with his son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), who breaks his father's heart by refusing to follow the upwardly mobile path prescribed for him. Then there are arguments between Gustad and Dilnavaz over financial priorities: When their young daughter falls ill with malaria, Dilnavaz blames Gustad for his cheapness in allowing it to happen.
But all this is just a trivial prelude to a far more dangerous issue that develops: Gustad's old friend Major Jimmy "Billy Boy" Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah) announces that he is a secret agent employed by the government to help fund Pakistani rebels. He asks Gustad to deposit -- slowly and clandestinely -- a huge sum of money into his bank. Dilnavaz cannot believe that Gustad will be foolish enough to get involved in such perilous political intrigue. But Gustad is moved by friendship (primarily) and patriotism (secondly) to do Jimmy's bidding.
Such a Long Journey
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson
Screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala; based on the novel by Rohinton Mistry
Starring Roshan Seth, Soni Razdan, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, and Ranjit Chowdhry
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With the help of a goofy friend at the office (Sam Dastor), Gustad begins transferring bundles of cash into the vault. The entire affair is fraught with suspense, and director Sturla Gunnarsson makes the most of the contrast between the plainness of the teller's quotidian home life and the frightening violence linked to his foray into the cloak-and-dagger world.
There is also much humor and pathos to be found in the film's portrayal of the fringe characters in the Nobles' community -- including the tragic local idiot (Kurush Deboo) and a philosophical street artist (Ranjit Chowdhry).
The story veers slightly into the realm of magical realism at times, and its basic conclusions seem to reflect a bemusement at the mysteries of existence. The tangle of political intrigues may constantly intrude on Gustad Noble's existence, but in the long run it is fate and human nature that dominate the story. While the historical and cultural backdrop may be impenetrable for Americans, it is nearly as confusing to the characters themselves, who are adrift in a complex fabric of politics, religions, and ethnic conflicts that rarely can be conveyed through standard film exposition.
While the entire cast is right on the money, a special word must be said about Seth, who has labored in supporting roles for years and here gets the rare lead that he so richly deserves. He made an indelible impression as the comical yet heroic steward in his first English-language film, Richard Lester's 1974 thriller Juggernaut. Since then he has been a mainstay in films about Britain's Indian and Pakistani communities, such as London Kills Me and My Beautiful Laundrette. It is a thrill to see him step into center stage for once.