8 August 2008

Thoughts on watching Such a Long Journey

BOMBAY WAS CENTRAL, HAD been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black waters to flow into our veins…

Salman Rushdie,
The Moor’s Last Sigh

It may seem strange to begin with Rushdie when one is one is writing about a film based on a Rohinton Mistry novel. But Bombay, mother-of-cities, in a country where the iconic importance of ‘motherness’ cannot be over-emphasized, is central to both. Crowded and solitary, luminous and dark at the same time, multicoloured urban alternative to a khadi-clad Village India, the city is the setting for much of Rushdie and Mistry’s fiction.

One such work is Such A Long Journey, the first novel written by Bombay-born-and-brought-up, Canadian author Rohinton Mistry. Made into a film in 1998, with Stella Gunnarson as director, the film recently premiered in India at a UTV-Canadian High Commission screening at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi, as a prelude to its commercial release at PVR Anupam cinema, starting 2 March, 2001.

The premiere was quite an affair. Coffee and strawberry juice, cheese sandwiches and pineapple pastries were followed by forty minutes of speeches. The Canadians clearly wanted to use the occasion to bolster their cultural ties with the Indian government, which was represented on stage in the green silk-clad figure of Sushma Swaraj. Produced by the Canadian multinational media group UTV, in collaboration with the British Greenberg Trust, with an all-Indian star cast, the film is as densely packed with subcontinental spice as any self-respecting Tikka Masala.

The premiere itself was preceded by the Canadian High Commissioner proudly announcing the arrival of the age of total collaboration: the short TV animation (shown before the film) looks quite Canadian, (he said), but was drawn largely by Indians, while the feature film, which looks so totally Indian, was in fact produced entirely by Canadians. He seemed almost triumphant about the ‘invisibility’ of origin, as did Sushma Swaraj, who echoed his sentiments about joint ventures between India and Canada. All of them said exactly the same thing, (though in different words - and very different accents): how a film no longer has to be made in the same country as it is written, or watched in the country it is about; the media has transcended language barriers, the boundaries of the nation state, what a great and good thing the media is…And so it is, I thought.

But then the film began, and there was something about it that made me wonder. Whether it was the titles in a Nastaliq-ized Roman script, or the sense of the city as an unceasing assault on the senses, from which the characters must protect themselves, I don’t know. But I had the strange sense that there was almost too much “India” in the film for it to actually be Indian. There is a chaotic madness about all the images of the city: crowds and dust and dancing in the streets, which combine with a political backdrop that is all intrigue and secret assignments, power that does not need to show itself. All images, in fact, that the Westerner thinking of the East would immediately identify. But, the assumption seems to be, never identify with.

The film centres around Gustad Noble, a Parsi bank clerk, the epitome of quiet middle-class gentility, trying to lead an honest life amidst the corruption and squalor of 1970s Bombay. Gustad wages a constant battle to keep the city’s madness at bay: to prevent the crowds and the corruption, the dust and the disease lapping his doorstep from overflowing into the fiercely guarded space of domesticity that is his home. Time and again, the film foregrounds the classic opposition between the private and the public, the inside and the outside. The city is quite explicitly the space of unmitigated chaos, filth, disease and latent violence. In one scene, an old Parsi doctor who is meant to be diagnosing Gustad’s young daughter Roshan, goes into a long monologue about the malaise that has the city in its grip. Pollution and sickness, crime and disease: these are analogies that recur in many writings about the city.

“You laad-sahibs,” he said, contemptuously sending a long jet of bright vermilion sputum towards my bare feet. “You live in the city and know nothing of its heart. To you it is invisible, but now you have been made to see. You are in Bombay Central lock-up. It is the stomach, the intestine of the city. So naturally there is much of shit.”

Salman Rushdie

The Moor’s Last Sigh

The idea of the inner city, the working class district into which the genteel middle classes do not and cannot go, is something that emerged in Victorian England: the seedy London opium dens into which Sherlock Holmes goes disguised as a beggar, Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist where young boys are inducted into the art of pickpocketing: these are places (and people) that evoke the simultaneous horror and pity of the middle classes. Rushdie’s take on the bowels of the city, however, is not simply middle class horror. It is the gaze of one who has “been made to see”, and has been able to stomach the sight, with not a little help from a sharp sense of humour.

Such a Long Journey, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat unable to deal with what it sees. There is an ever-growing sense of foreboding, and an increasing helplessness, as the household is suddenly catapulted into a series of bizarre events. It is not just the city that is in chaos. The time is 1971, the country is in the grip of Indira fever, and the Bangladesh war is about to begin. A letter from Gustad’s old friend Jimmy, followed by a parcel full of money, which must be deposited surreptitiously in the bank, results in Gustad’s reluctant involvement in some rather murky dealings. His daughter Roshan falls mysteriously ill. His wife Dilnawaz (Soni Razdan), anxious to return peace and prosperity to the household, gets into a web of black magic and necromancy, hoping to transfer the ill will dogging her family onto the unsuspecting local idiot, Tehmul.

Gustad’s effort to close his doors against the winds of the city and the nation has, at best, ambivalent results. The house remains in a state of perpetual darkness - the blackout paper on the windows has kept out every trace of sun since 1965. The black-papered gloom of the present is juxtaposed with the past, which Gustad dreams of in sunlit swathes of gold.

And outside his golden daydreams, the world is spinning faster than he can handle. “Wheels within wheels, Dinshaw, wheels within wheels,” as Gustad says to his friend at the office.

Conversations at various points in the film confirm the sense of bewilderment at the passing of a world: new manners, new people, new names that are turning a well-loved, familiar world into an alien one. Names are so important, says Dinshawji. If the names were wrong, what happens to the life I led? Was I living the wrong life?

The baffled torment of the question sets the mood of the whole film, and one gets the sense that Mistry fully shares Gustad’s pain and bewilderment. The meeting with the taxi driver who is actually an agent for RAW (part of the Indian intelligence services), first in a shop in Chor Bazaar, in a dingy back room, and then in a room in a brothel, seems to force an interaction between two worlds very different in class and manners, where Gustad is distressed at worst, and uncomfortable at best. One dominant image is that of Gustad in the local train at peak hours, his well-scrubbed white shirt conspicuously clean amidst the colour and grime of the crowd: almost iconic tie-wale sahib, as one sex worker calls him.

The film configures the state in two very different avatars: at one level, there is the state as secrecy and surveillance, almost Foucaldian in its ability to inspire fear; at another, there is the state as bureaucratic inefficiency: a misguided Municipality that wants to tear down the wall outside Gustad’s house. The municipal bulldozers are forced to withdraw before the onslaught of a large group of citizens – sex workers and politicos, with the middle class represented solely by the Parsi doctor, but in the fracas that ensues, a stray brick falls on Tehmul’s head, and he dies.

Tehmul’s role as receptacle for Dilnawaz’s black magic, continual object of humiliation and simultaneous pity, and his eventual death, give the narrative a strange undercurrent of moral/religious wrongdoing, punishment, and final redemption. Everything that matters is under siege: familial relationships, city, morality, the entire order of things; middle class faith in the nation is shaken at every step, and an all-enveloping darkness threatens to overwhelm us. At one point, Gustad actually articulates the idea of “a test set by god” which he has failed. Religion, then, is also treated in two very different ways within the film. Gustad’s quiet faith – expressed in individual prayer, seems meant for the audience to identify with, while those who gather to pray, en masse, to the painted deities on Gustad’s wall, are almost caricatured. An all-too-easy dismissal of the faith of the ‘masses’ – or just another lament for the passing of an idealised age?

“In Bombay, as the old founding myth of the nation faded, the new god-and-mammon India was being born,” writes Rushdie. But for Rushdie, India seems to survive. However ludicrous, however insane his created world seems, there is a certain intimacy, a fondness for it, which always comes through. Mistry’s vision, though equally soaked in nostalgia, is almost entirely pessimistic. Certainly the film left me with a feeling of distance – one is made to identify so completely with Gustad and his sorrows that it is very difficult to see the city or India as a place that one can be close to, let alone be fond of. The film is a perfect example of an increasing body of cinema that consciously presents itself to the world as Indian, and looks Indian, because it is easy to look it – but it is undeniably a view from the outside.

The piece above was published online on www.digitaltalkies.com in early 2001.

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