by Harvey Karten
The telephone, TV, and computers may have made the world seem like a small place, but cultural conflicts are still a source of endless amusement. In one of the funniest such scenes, in Nicholas Meyer's 1979 feature "Time After Time," H.G. Wells follows Jack the Ripper in a time machine to the United States, watches someone hail a taxi by hopping on one foot and waving frantically, and promptly mimics the native. "The Journey," a comedy-drama directed by Harish Saluja is more akin to Ang Lee's "Pushing Hands." Lee's 1992 film deals with a Chinese-American who brings his father, a tai-chi master who speaks no English, to live with his American wife and son in a New York suburb.
What makes "The Journey" even more accessible than "Pushing Hands" to an American audience, is that its principal character speaks fluent English and is, in fact, a poet- philosopher as well. In this film, Roshan Seth, who must have made about a hundred films in the west, is in the role of Kishan Singh--an Indian who has just lost his wife and who is invited to spend some time in a Pittsburgh suburb with his son, the doctor.
In one scene, an energetic, thirty-something woman who is introduced to the Indian man, confides to the man's daughter-in-law, "I absolutely adore him." You will too: Roshan Seth is a consummate natural who easily takes on heroic proportions during his brief stay with his audience.
Harish Saluja milks the cross-cultural differences for humor quite successfully throughout. Kishan, who had never been to the States before, has a lot to learn about American customs and technology, but in the end he becomes the guide to his overly-materialistic, workaholic son Raj (Antony Zaki) and the younger man's obsessively neat and WASPish wife, Laura (Carrie Preston).
At first he commits one gaffe after another. Instead of putting the teabag into the cup, he opens it and pours in the leaves. Some time later, believing he has mastered the cuisine, he places the individual bag of sugar into his tea without opening it. Manipulating the remote control, he drives the home entertainment center nuts by alternating quickly between television, compact disc player and VCR. Unable to open a large bag of potato chips, he gives the sack a sudden yank sending fragments of greased spuds flying across the room. He becomes the Pittsburgh area's first person to admit a Jehovah's Witness to the large house, then debates the handsome young men, comparing the visitor's beliefs with his own Buddhist temperament. A good deal of broad comedy is provided by another performer about as well known to Indian audiences in America, Saeed Jaffrey in the role of Ashok, an earthy disk jockey at an Indian radio station.
Comedy aside, however, the real value of this wonderfully realized narrative is its approach to life. Kishan, who mourns for his recently departed wife, counsels his son and daughter- in-law, "You must love the people in your life; they may be here only a short time." He provides an object lesson to them by spending considerable time with his granddaughter, Jenny (Nora Bates), an 8-year-old who complains that her parents are too busy to read to her. There is nothing wildly unpredictable about the story line, but in the hands of superior actors like Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey, the film leaves an indelible mark for its appropriate balance of broad comedy, home-spun humor and touching metaphysics.