Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson’s latest film is like some ill-advised mix of Arthur Miller and Kafka, a strange combination of domestic drama and shadowy intrigue that never quite gels.
The film is set in Bombay in 1971 – the year that rebellious struggles in East Pakistan were leading to the foundation of the independent state of Bangladesh – and its focus is one Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth), the Indian equivalent of an average Joe. Seth should be a familiar face to Western viewers, having had significant roles in Passage to India and Mississippi Masala. He expertly plays a beleaguered everyman, good-natured but confused, as the film moves between his interactions with his family and his dealings with his mysterious friend, Jimmy Bilimoria (Naseeruddin Shah), who may or may not be a government agent working for pro-Bangladesh interests.
For the domestic drama aspect of the narrative, Gustad has been supplied with the usual accouterments – an anxious wife, a rebellious son and a precocious young daughter. There’s also the family friend, Dinshawji (Sam Dastor), a co-worker at the bank with Gustad and, one suspects, intended as comedy relief, although he’s too grotesquely idiotic to be actually funny. For the intrigue aspect, we have the seemingly benevolent but remote Bilimoria and his seemingly benevolent but homicidal henchman, Ghulam (Om Puri). Moving somewhere between these two story strands are a cynical street painter of religious murals and a gibbering madman who likes to have sex with little rubber dolls.
It’s all less interesting than it may sound. The basic plot involves Bilimoria asking Gustad to deposit large sums of money in an account at his bank, and to keep it a secret. Gustad wavers at this request; his life and the lives of his family become threatened; his daughter contracts malaria and the colorful crazies on the fringe of the plot do their thing.
No coherent tone is achieved and the Bangladesh connection recedes quietly into the background, leaving only a good performance by Roshan Seth, baffled but unbowed as he narrowly escapes drowning by plot.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].