A strong devotion to South Asian cinema is required to make it through "Such a Long Journey," a British-Canadian co-production that lines up some of Bombay's leading thespians and then sets them off on a narrative path to nowhere in particular.
Even on a meandering trip, actor Roshan Seth is worth following. As he proved with his winning performances as an Old World dad in 1997's "The Journey" and a gay landlord in the following year's "Bombay Boys," the charismatic Seth is an adept translator of material that runs from quiet drama to wry comedy. In the role of the new film's Gustad Noble, he has to draw on every facet of his abilities.
Working as a bank clerk in the Bombay of 1971, Noble struggles to keep his personal and professional lives in order as the prospect looms of war between India and Pakistan. Harbingers of change are all around: His son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), announces his intention to forfeit his acceptance to a prestigious university, renouncing a dream the father thought he and his son had always shared. Meanwhile, a long-lost friend resurfaces in Noble's life, sending him a letter that implores him to surreptitiously deposit a large sum of cash in the bank's coffers on the man's behalf.
The vanished pal, we learn, is now a member of the Indian Secret Service. His request tests Noble's loyalty and faith in the system: Why does a government agent require such clandestine methods? And why are the new associates who transmit his requests all blatant thugs?
For that matter, who is this Noble, anyway? In his scenes with Sohrab, he's a priggish disciplinarian, performing the standard "I have no son!" routine that's been around since at least "The Jazz Singer." At other times he vacillates between wide-eyed innocence and pensive philosophy. Playing three roles at once is a fine showcase for Seth, but it's no recipe for a cohesive film.
The phenomenal Om Puri (a knockout as a more clearly defined paterfamilias in 1998's "My Son the Fanatic") is wasted in the marginal part of Ghulam, the dangerous right-hand man of Noble's mysterious friend. Even more slighted is Naseeruddin Shah, whose portrayal of Jimmy Bilimoria -- the shadowy figure himself -- is restricted to brief flashbacks and a few bedridden present-day sequences. None hints at the layers of menace Shah brought to his crime boss/film producer in "Bombay Boys."
Worse, we're subjected to two insufferable bits of comic relief. Sam Dastor's turn as Noble's trusted co-worker, Dinshawji, is suffused with baggy-pants clownishness, and Kurush Deboo essays the part of village idiot Tehmul with a sputtering hysteria that would make Jerry Lewis cringe.
Working from Rohinton Mistry's novel, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala ('Mississippi Masala," "Salaam Bombay") and director Sturla Gunnarsson (a veteran of several made-for-TV movies) apparently seek to make a statement about corruption and social upheaval. Though moments of wisdom present themselves, it's difficult to locate a cogent message as the movie dallies with intrigue, slapstick humor and family melodrama.
In an allegedly symbolic subplot, a pavement artist (Ranjit Chowdhry) decorates a wall outside Noble's apartment building with religious murals; the temporary assignment allows him to spout a few quasi-Eastern homilies and then vanish. He's totally at home in a film that has too little to say but is determined to paint with every color on its palette.