Sturla vs. the Censors

Sturla Gunnarsson reveals how filming in India saved him from cynicism
By Sharan Gill

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While in town to promote the Canadian release of Such a Long Journey, director Sturla Gunnarsson took time out to talk to rungh's Sarah Gill about the epic journey he undertook in adapting Rohinton Mistry's award winning novel to the screen.

Sharan Gill: Knowing that there were two others who attempted to direct Such A Long Journey, prior to your involvement, how intimidating was it to step in and salvage the film?

Sturla Gunnarsson: It occurs a lot with films like this — the sun, the moon and the stars all have to line up for it to happen. For them it just didn't happen. The timing didn't work out and the financing fell apart. I wasn't involved in the project at the time so I don't know what the circumstances surrounding their departure were.

I didn't feel any pressure at all regarding the fact that there were two other directors involved. It was the novel that I loved. When I got involved I said, "Okay, I don't want to see their drafts." We went right back to the beginning. What did intimidate me was the novel.

Sharan: What was the greatest journey and challenge you endured in the production of this film?

Sturla: The biggest journey was that this film came at just the right time for me in my life. Working in India and making this film saved me from cynicism. I was at a point where, when you're a film producer long enough, you start to have a cynical view of things. For me the real journey in this film was going to this place and being lifted up by it.

To begin with I had to reinvent myself. Nothing that I did in Canada worked in Bombay. I was forced to completely go back to square one and re-learn how to live, and that was the great journey. In India you're forced to be earnest and honest, say what you really think and not take the easy way out. You're forced to come out and articulate what you mean and therefore think about what you mean. That was the journey surrounding the making of the film.

The challenge was filming in Bombay. It's the other side of the planet. Nothing works the same way. The difficulties were so many. There's not an hour in the day when the banks in Canada are open at the same time as the banks in India. So transferring funds was a nightmare. Getting across town took 3 1/2 hours in traffic. Sound...

Bombay is the loudest city in the universe — everybody has their horn on all the time... that's how they drive. But, you have to have your eyes open for the miracles that occur around you all the time. If you're so fixated on what you're trying to do, you miss everything. The toughest thing was trying to distill 380 pages into 110 minutes while keeping the integrity of the novel on screen.

Sharan: What role did Rohinton Mistry play in the production of this film?

Sturla: Rohinton had heard all of the stories about the film business before he optioned to sell us the novel, and I think he sold us the book and carried on with his life. He didn't want his heart broken, and he really had very little to do with the adaptation until near the end. Once he started participating he was helping Roshan (Seth) and I work with the actors. He helped us shape the material. He was very Zen like about it I never felt like "Oh God, now we have to deal with Rohinton."

Sharan: Knowing Rohinton do you get a feel that a lot of his own personal experiences have been captured in the novel?

Sturla: He's Sorab, the son. Rohinton was this banker who broke free and became a writer. People called Rohinton the 'Bob Dylan of Bombay.' He was a folky. He was part of this whole folk movement. Sorab is the character he most strongly relates to.

The character that wants to pursue an arts education rather than a technical career as his father would prefer him to do.

Sharan: In the production of this film did you utilize any resources from the Bollywood film industry?

Sturla: We tried to keep a very low profile when we were in Bombay. The bigger and more visible you are, the more of a target you are for all kinds of people that you don't necessarily want to deal with. Naseerudin (Shah) and Om (Puri) are Bollywood stars, but both of them came out of the Delhi Theatre School. They both have their roots in the parallel cinema, and laterally came to Bollywood. We built our interiors out of Film City, which is where a lot of the Bollywood stuff is made.

They're an acquired taste, but I actually kind of like some of the Masala movies. But it's so different from what we do. What we do is naturalistic, what they do is theatrical.

The sets they build are meant to look like sets, if you didn't see the make-up artists' work they'd feel they hadn't done their job. The core of our Indian crew was from the Bandit Queen, and they all had experience doing foreign films.

Sharan: In the last issue of rungh we interviewed Naseerudin Shah. He talked about how today's expatriate filmmakers lack an intimacy with India and consequently fail to effectively depict the background history in the films they make. He said that in Such A Long Journey he felt there was a lack of connection with the Bangladeshi war. Being of non-Indian descent, let alone expatriate, do you think at some level this is a valid criticism?

They've been trying to get Midnight's Children up and running but they can't get it through the censors. That's the problem with India...that words matter. Here you can say anything you want and nothing matters.

Sturla: No, I think that's nonsense. The geopolitical context in the novel was something that we did have to sacrifice for two reasons. One, because we had to distill the novel and make it 110 minutes long. Second, because it never would have got through the censors, not in a million years. I don't know what Naseer's talking about. What was the last Indian movie he saw that dealt with politics in any realistic way? Filmmaking is the humanist art form, and Rohinton's novels are humanistic. By that I mean what they talk about is the human condition and the things that connect us, not those things that set us apart. I think that's the triumph of the novel - that you can read that book and connect with Gustad Noble. You don't have to be an Indian, or a Parsi to connect with him. Furthermore this is a Canadian Film. Rohinton is a Canadian writer — he could never have written that novel had he stayed in Bombay. He said he needed to step back from it to be able to observe the place where he came from, and that is the point of view of the film. As a Canadian director, I probably noticed a lot of things that my friends in India take for granted, that they no longer notice because they're so familiar. So, if Naseer wants to make a political film, go for it. That's not what we set out to do.

Another thing, why is he talking about Indians anyway? It's about Parsis. There are 130,000 of them in the world, and I don't think the Muslims or the Hindus in India know anything more about Parsis than I do — certainly not if you look at their cinema where Parsis are portrayed as caricatures in every single film I've ever seen.

Sharan: I've never experienced the transformation of a film that was so close to what I experienced while reading the novel. How did you achieve this?

Sturla: The novel is closely observed. It's about the rituals of everyday life. I tried to do that on film — to stay true to the little details that allow it to have its own pace and its own rhythm. We also wanted to do a very faithful adaptation. English Patient was a reinvention — I liked the novel and I liked the movie but they were two different things, and you needed to do that with English Patient. With Such A Long Journey we didn't need to do that because it's written from a character's point of view. You understand who these people are, what their actions are, why they do what they do. It's all there on the page, so that was the goal — to try to create on the screen the same experience I had, emotionally, when I read the book.

I find Indians to be very practical people (laugh) - they have to be to survive.

Sharan: In the film Bombay Boys, the character played by Roshan Seth asks, "Why is India a cheap shrink for the worlds lunatics?" While you were in India did you see or experience this whole mystical playground that India is made out to be in the West?

Sturla: No, but I know it's there. I suppose there's a stream of the hippie thing, but I never experienced it. I find Indians to be very practical people (laugh) — they have to be to survive.

Sharan: Describe your first and last day in India. What was your first impression of the country and what taste did it leave in your mouth upon departure?

Sturla: I landed in Bombay in the middle of the night, and I remember riding in the back of the cold, air conditioned Ambassador. There are not a lot of streetlights so everything had a slightly kind of "other" intimidating feel.

There were all these dark shapes, and I eventually realized they were people sleeping on the sidewalks. The next day I got up and it was a beautiful day. I stepped out of the hotel and this rich pageant was there and it didn't feel threatening to me. Apart from that first drive in from the airport, it didn't feel the least bit threatening. I found myself connecting almost immediately with the people. Everybody was curious about me because I'm this blonde guy. Everybody would stare at me, I would stare back, and they'd smile, and I'd smile and we'd start talking. That never happens in Toronto.

Fine Balance would be somebody's absolute masterwork. I think it probably should be done by an Indian. It should be done by the great Indian director of this generation.

But it's funny, on that first day I remember seeing these bodies and being intimidated. A few months later - Judy, my wife, and the kids had dinner at Only Fish down at the AC Market, and we were walking out and everybody was getting ready to go to bed on the street. When we were walking in and around the people I remember feeling like I was intruding on people's living rooms. It felt comfortable though, it felt benign and safe. I was there with my family for five months. My kids went to school in Bombay for the first two and a half months. On the last day, when we left, it was pretty sad. Coming home, my kids were depressed for months and months.

Sharan: So the trip, aside from the movie, has definitely impacted your life?

Sturla: Oh yeah. It all sound so "hairy fairy," like what Roshan says in Bombay Boys, but it just... I don't know. Somebody said that in India you learn not to sweat the small stuff, and really there's not that much big stuff. There are so many things that you can do nothing about so you develop faith that things will work out. Basically people are okay, basically it's good to be alive. I'm not such a cynic anymore.

Sharan: What project are you working on right now? What is the ideal project that you would like to work on in the future?

Sturla: I'm working on a film that I set in motion before I did Such A Long Journey.

It's a good project, but I don't think I would've chosen to do something so dark as what I'm doing now. It's called Scorn, and it's about a boy who ends up murdering his mother and grandmother. The ideal project? I'd like to work on something a little bit bigger. Great material, that's all I'm looking for - where I can recognize in the writing the world that I live in.

Sharan: Would you consider Rohinton Mistry's novel A Fine Balance as a future project?

Sturla: It's challenging on so many different levels. Getting it through the censors would be a nightmare. And Rohinton isn't fond of Mrs. Ghandi and they're coming back on the political front. On the financing level, it's a big bill and you can't cheap out on it. There is a movie there, and it will be made some day by a great filmmaker. Fine Balance would be somebody's absolute masterwork. I think it probably should be done by an Indian. It should be done by the great Indian director of this generation.

Sharan: Do you see yourself working with more Indian cinema and writers in the future?

Sturla: I would love to make another film in India but it would depend on the material. I would like to work with Salman Rushdie. They've been trying to get Midnight's Children up and running but they can't get it through the censors. That's the problem with India... that words matter. Here you can say anything you want and nothing matters. In India there are so many communal and political issues. I'm not in favour of censorship, but I understand why they're nervous about this kind of stuff. In India words matter.

Handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Sturla Gunnarsson
Sturla Gunnarsson contributed to Rungh Magazine Volume 4 Number 4 - The Journeys Issue.
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Sharan Gill contributed to Rungh Magazine Volume 4 Number 4 - The Journeys Issue.
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