Passage to India: A Canadian director captures Rohinton Mistry

Taking a movie camera into a Bombay brothel is not easy. Foreigners simply do not set foot in Kamatipura, the city’s sprawling red-light district, never mind foreigners with film crews. So for Sturla Gunnarsson, the Canadian director of Such a Long Journey, getting permission to film a short scene there required days of negotiation with byzantine layers of government, police, gangsters and pimps. The neighbourhood goondas, or warlords, had to be paid off. And to shoot street scenes, Gunnarsson had to set up hidden cameras hours in advance. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “There are five or six blocks of squalor. There are no civil authorities. Every building is a brothel, with saris hanging out of them and rats running around. The economics of it are all on view. There are girls who have beds on the street, bed frames divided by pieces of cardboard.”

Gunnarsson spent a day shooting in a relatively upscale brothel, using the prostitutes as extras. “They’d all worked the night before and they were going to be working that night,” he says, “but they were so concerned for us – my assistant director is a woman, and they kept wanting to sit her down and bring her tea and braid her hair.”

Back in Toronto, sitting in the airy midtown house that he shares with his wife and two children, the director recalls with a fond smile the mayhem of shooting in India. “Bombay is a city of 16 million people in an area the size of Manhattan,” he says. “It’s chaotic and corrupt. But the flip side is that everywhere you meet people who go out of their way to help you. Nothing ever turns out the way you expect, but somehow everything turns out.”

It is hard to imagine Gunnarsson, an Icelandic-born Canadian, feeling at home in Bombay. But the 47-year-old director has made a career of intrepidly plunging into unknown waters. In the world of Canadian cinema, which is dominated by the dark, the introspective and the offbeat – by the likes of Cronenberg, Egoyan and McKellar – Gunnarsson is our resident Viking, an outward-bound navigator on the high seas of realism. “I’ve always used film,” he says, “as an opportunity to explore places I haven’t seen before.”

As a radical young film-maker working with the National Film Board, he took the unlikely step of devoting his first feature documentary to the issue of executive job placement. After the Axe (1982), about a fired middle-aged executive, was nominated for an Oscar. Since then, Gunnarsson’s camera has ranged from the back rooms of Canada’s labour movement (1985’s Final Offer) to the death squads of South Africa’s former apartheid regime (1997’s Emmy-winning Gerrie & Louise). To research his first dramatic feature, Diplomatic Immunity (1991), Gunnarsson risked his life in El Salvador at the height of the civil war. And even his TV movies have a courageous edge – from The Diary of Evelyn Lau (1994), the true story of a teenage hooker that launched the career of Genie-winning actor Sandra Oh, to Mother Trucker (1995), which dramatized the struggle of Teamster Diana Kilmury.

At first, however, Gunnarsson had doubts about adapting Such a Long Journey, the award-winning 1991 novel by Indian-born Canadian Rohinton Mistry. “I wondered, ‘What gives me the right to direct this movie?’ I didn’t know if I’d have the confidence to take on a story in a foreign culture.” But India, like Canada, is an amalgam of disparate cultures. And the characters in Mistry’s novel – the story of a diligent bank clerk whose world starts unravelling around him – are Parsis, a tiny minority whose Zoroastrian ancestors immigrated from Persia 800 years ago. When Gunnarsson first visited Bombay, an Indian actor set him straight: “What makes you think a Hindu or a Muslim knows more about Parsis than you do?”

The director has a personal link to India through his wife of 20 years, Judy, a Vancouver-born set designer of Sikh descent. “The novel didn’t feel exotic to me,” he says. “I’ve been around an extended Indian family since 1978.” But then Gunnarsson discovered an affinity with the Parsis through his own heritage. “They are like Icelanders,” he says. “There are 300,000 Icelanders in Iceland and we’re an ancient tribe. There are 130,000 Parsis in the world and they’re an ancient tribe.”

Gunnarsson, who immigrated to Canada with his parents at age 7, grew up in Vancouver as an only child. His father, now deceased, was a naval architect in Iceland and worked as a contractor in Vancouver. Studying English literature and political science at the University of British Columbia, Gunnarsson made his first short films while caught up in the left-wing politics of the day. “My first brush with show business,” he laughs, “was making a play on the bringing about of revolutionary consciousness among the peasantry in Hunan province.” Graduating in 1974, he spent several years travelling the world, taking jobs as a shepherd in Crete, a truck driver in Shetland and a deckhand on an Icelandic fishing boat. Returning home, and unable to find work, in 1977 he enrolled in a graduate film course at UBC, where he met his wife and found his vocation.

As a documentary director, Gunnarsson caught the tail end of the glory days at the National Film Board. Working closely with such NFB legends as Donald Brittain, Colin Low and John Spotton, he learned the art of making verito documentaries. And he has tried to bring the same veracity to drama. Gunnarsson spent eight years working on Diplomatic Immunity, finally shooting the drama in Mexico after repeated visits to El Salvador. Aside from almost dying, he had to sell his house, which he had mortgaged to help finance the film. “It was a nightmare,” he recalls. “It’s hard to spend that much of your life on a film, then watch it win some awards and get some polite applause and play in a couple of theatres for a few weeks.”

By working in television, Gunnarsson at least knows that his work will be seen. His next project, which starts shooting this summer, is a CBC movie called Scorn, a drama based on the story of Darren Huenemann, a Victoria teen who murdered his mother in 1990. Meanwhile, with Such a Long Journey, his second theatrical feature, the director hopes to crack the elusive audience for Canadian cinema. The film marks a departure. It is his least provocative work, a lyrically textured adaptation of a novel that sheds a soft light on the human condition.

But in India it may cause controversy. Set in 1971, the story involves a subplot about corruption implicating former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Her crimes have been well documented by the local news media but remain a taboo subject for India’s strictly censored cinema. Reviewing Such a Long Journey, India’s largest English-language daily, The Times of India, called the movie’s political honesty “breathtaking.” The paper went on to praise Gunnarsson as “a foreign director with an insider’s perspective” who has made a “superb, brooding film . . . with masterly control and delicate feeling.” Once again, Gunnarsson travelled the extra mile to get it right, and those who knew could tell the difference.

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