Long absent as a source of outrage from the movies we see, the Pakistani-Indian war as it’s been fought on and off since 1947 is suddenly hot, at least for Americanized Indian films like Deepa Mehta’s languidly shot sermons and Sturla Gunnarsson’s new Such a Long Journey. Acted by Indians in English, produced with British and Canadian money, and directed by an Icelander with American TV to his credit, Journey has an acultural lostness about it, meant for all races but expressive of none. It’s a sensation bound to grow more common as globalism trods on, but Gunnarsson’s movie rises above this vague dispossession, particularly in its respect for the textures of Bombay and for the Ben Kingsley-esque gravity of its star, Roshan Seth. Set on the eve of the dustup over Bangladesh in 1971, Journey tracks Gustad, Seth’s decent-hearted banker, as he negotiates the usual changing-cultural traumas (willful teenage son, exhausted wife seduced by superstition, etc.) and tries to do a long-lost friend the favor of accepting a package that turns out to be secret-service-absconded cash.
Mistaken for a covert operation to aid the Bangladeshis (turns out the lost cash is what actually got Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in hot water in ’71), Gustad’s noirish plight is soon superseded by larger catastrophes. Gunnarsson’s movie often feels like a mere succession of deaths and tragedies, but the filmmaking is fresh and unemphatic, and the acting is generally gripping. Om Puri (as a mysterious go-between) and Vrajesh Hirjee (as Gustad’s amused but rebellious son) are excellent, but Seth is the movie; even when it’s not clear what the action has to do with the war for Bangladesh, Seth makes it all one genuine, tired man’s woeful business. Still, too bad no one dared shoot the movie in Gujarati, with actors we don’t know from TV (faces from NYPD Blue, Cosby, and Space: 1999 crop up)—it might seem less of an entertainment and more of an encounter with history.