A former Pakistani pop star, played by Ahmad Razvi, peddles coffee in this smart film on the immigrant experience, Man Push Cart.
A coffee cart the size of Sisyphuss rock
By Leonard Quart
Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in New York in large numbers hoping for a better life. Some succeed, but its usually an arduous process. Man Push Cart is a neorealist, low budget, independent film with a minimal narrative, directed by an Iranian-American, Ramin Bahrani that focuses on one such story.
Ahmad (a layered performance by Ahmad Razvi), a former pop star in his home country of Pakistan, sells coffee and bagels from one of those ubiquitous carts in Midtown Manhattan, and bootlegs porn DVDs on the side. His wife has recently died, and his young son resides with his hostile in-laws. He lives in Brooklyn in a tiny, bare apartment, and takes the subway at 3 a.m. to set up his cart near Grand Central with the lights of the Chrysler Buildings spire glowing in the background.
Bahranis film (inspired by Camuss Sisyphus, who is eternally pushing the rock up the hill) captures the day-to-day drudgery of Ahmads job, dragging the cart through traffic at in the early morning darkness when garbage trucks roar past him, and pouring coffee and tea for commuters during the day at his busy corner. Ahmad, like many other immigrants, is doing work beneath his talent, but labors doggedly without exhibiting any overt resentment toward his customers.
Still, this sensitive, silent man, who is alienated from his much cruder Pakistani peers, always looks defeated and melancholy. Then two new characters disrupt his oppressive routine. He is offered work fixing up the new apartment of a wealthy, brash, patronizing and somewhat tactless businessman, Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandovalwho also makes empty promises to help Ahmad resurrect his musical career. There is also a casual relationship with Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a delicate, intelligent Spanish woman temporarily working at her familys newsstand. There are hints of a burgeoning romance, but Ahmad is hesitant haunted by the past and unsure of himself and nothing develops.
Man Push Cart is a character study without dramatic fireworks and devoid of exposition that fully details Ahmads personal history. But Bahranis direction tight shots of an entrapped Ahamad, or quietly moving alone through the shadowy lit night streets suggests as much about Ahmads situation and character as a great deal of explanatory dialogue. The film also richly projects what it feels like working on the citys most tumultuous streets with car horns honking, Con Ed workers drilling, and sirens wailing.
Bahrani has made a small slice of life film about one unique immigrants travails that illuminates his own stoical struggle. It also makes more visible something about the lives of the 37% of New Yorkers that are foreign-born. Its self-evident that you dont need big budgets, stars, special effects, and complicated narratives to make a fine film.