It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
India is the closest we can come in today's world to the London of Charles Dickens, with its poverty and wealth side by side in a society teeming with benevolence and intrigue, eccentrics and thieves, the suspect and the saintly. "Such a Long Journey," filmed on location in Bombay, is a film so rich in atmosphere it makes Western films look pale and underpopulated. It combines politics, religion, illness and scheming in the story of one family in upheaval, and is very serious and always amusing.
The story, set in 1971 at the time of the war between India and Pakistan, is based on the novel of the same name by Rohinton Mistry, an Indian now living in Toronto. I haven't read it, but I have read his latest novel, the magnificent A Fine Balance, which has the same ability to see how political issues impact the lives of the ordinary and the obscure. Mistry's novels have the droll irony of Dickens, as when a legless beggar and a beggarmaster turn out to be brothers, and the beggarmaster is so moved that he buys the beggar a better cart on which to push himself around.
"Such a Long Journey" takes place mostly in and around a large apartment complex, its courtyard and the street, which the municipal authorities want to widen so that even more choking diesel fumes can cloud the air. We meet the hero, Gustad (Roshan Seth), in the process of defending the old concrete wall that protects his courtyard from the street, and later he strikes a bargain with an itinerant artist (Ranjit Chowdhry), who covers the wall with paintings from every conceivable religious tradition, with the thought that all of the groups represented will join in defending the wall.
A greater struggle is in store for Gustad. A Parsi whose family has fallen on hard times, works in a bank, and is asked by Major Jimmy (Naseeruddin Shah), a friend from long ago, to hide and launder some money. The go-between (Om Puri) implies these are official Indian government funds being secretly transferred to finance the war against Pakistan in Bangladesh. (The movie doesn't require us to know much about modern history in the subcontinent, since the story works entirely in terms of the personal lives of its characters.) Gustad is a good and earnest man, who has adopted the local idiot as a kind of surrogate son, who is the unofficial mayor of his building, who is always on call to help his neighbors, who dotes on his little daughter, and bursts with pride that his son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee) has been accepted by the Indian Institute of Technology. Alas, Sohrad doesn't want to go to IIT; he hates engineering and wants to be an artist, and Gustad implores him to reconsider.