When we think of actors, actresses and performers this side of the globe we are immediately besieged by a host of negative images that elude us of all remaining shreds of dignity, poise and grace; we are reminded of Saima’s fight for righteousness during the mammary crusades, many a hero’s lacklustre pelvic lurches, Sultan Rahi grabbing bullets by his teeth and shooting them back at his rival with the force of an Uzi and delusional mothers-in-law tormenting their sons’ ‘bad choices’ into hellish necrosis that see her downward spiral from sacrificial bahu to mental asylum lover.
These are just some of the sorry states of cinema here (they’re actually box office smashers compared to others I’m not even going to begin to state), and have hence made many artists from our side of the playhouse fence a laughing stock; no one really takes them seriously.
We’re all getting used to the Indians hitching a ride to Hollywood by way of snobbish beauty queens and the like, but when it comes to our artists crossing any sort of borders, we naturally assume the best we can do is watch as our starlets disrobe for the unassuming and libidinously enhanced public, the kind that flock to theatres for a glimpse at her heaving goodies.
That’s why when I heard that a man of Pakistani origin was being recognised as the next big thing in parallel cinema, I reflexively rolled my eyes and wondered why we even bothered. Even though an ex-pat, he was still from the green and the white and I wasn’t expecting much in the way of kudos for the star. After plenty of initial coaxing, I made my way online and googled the title of his maiden venture, Man Push Cart. Needless to say yours naively ended up quite flabbergasted at the fact that this little gem of cinematic triumph was just that: a triumph. Described as “an ode to solitude,” it has started a sort of ripple effect in multi-dimensional film circuits worldwide. Not only that, the protagonist, Ahmad Razvi has received critical plaudits in the form of numerous distinctions in the world of cinema and the arts.
As the story of a former Pakistani rocker, an immigrant who is coerced by adverse circumstances into pushing a coffee cart along the streets of New York, Man Push Cart deals with the emergence of the subject’s character as he sells coffee and donuts to a city he cannot call his home, to a people he cannot call his own.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, this is the Iranian director Ramin Bohrani’s third film, after Backgammon and Strangers, both of them recognised and acclaimed in his native land. After the initial screening, the film went on to win big-player applause at the London International Film Festival, where it was hailed as “exquisite from a visual point of view as well as the beautiful performance of its first actor, Ahmad Razavi,” by senior British film critic, George Perry. Verbal commendations aside, the film went on to win top slot at the ceremony by bagging the Special International Critics Prize.
On a touch and go visit to Pakistan to attend a friend’s wedding, Ahmad took out some time to met this film noir fan before jetting off that same day. It was a very demure setting (read my untidy and paper littered office) for a soon to be art house favourite. Arriving in worn out jeans and an impromptu black shirt, Ahmad wasn’t what I was expecting, there wasn’t a hint of chutzpah or over the top self-loving; he seemed pretty much everyday, from his longish hair to his two-day scruff of a beard and looked more like a guitarist in an underground version of Velvet Revolver than a rising star in film circles the world over.
Born in Lahore in 1972, Ahmad left home at six for the greener pastures of NYC and has been there for the past twenty years. After talking to many local ‘stars’ and other such mental midgets who are all too keen to go on and on about the inanities of their pretentious lives, talking to Ahmad was like a much needed jolt of realist energy. “We weren’t at all well-off and I remember growing up in Brooklyn while my father struggled tirelessly. I remember changing a lot of schools and working a lot of odd jobs just to make ends meet,” relived Ahmad, all the while nestled comfortably on the sofa comfy enough in his own skin to narrate where he came from and exactly where he intends to go. From stints in many less than privileged jobs to developing the first ever Pakistani NGO in the States, the Council of Pakistan Organisation, with his father to help recuperate all the different ethnicities suffering from the mishap that was 9/11, there is visible a free thinker’s multifariousness, a sort of acceptance for the hand that fate dealt, that same fate that made him see the hardest of times and is now giving him the kind of opportunities we usually day dream about because of their preposterous impossibility. “COPO was established to give everyone in our multi-ethnic community a fighting chance in a new land by teaching the kids coherent English, educating them and basically telling them how to survive in the real world. It was through this NGO that I met Ramin Bohrani in 2002 during a walk-through he was having of the neighbourhood and our subsequent efforts at trying to make it better.” If the saying, ‘The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention’ is anything to be believed, Ahmad’s co-founding this NGO helped him meet the director who would later take him jet setting to places he would have never imagined before; I guess that’s what they call kismet.
As Ramin had many friends who were pushcart vendors in New York themselves, he had a clear vision about what he wanted from the sole person who was to carry out the ‘Ahmad’ (his real name was used in the film) of his perception and project it to the max. “ I started narrating to Ramin the story of my life, from growing up in that part of Brooklyn known as Little Pakistan to my struggles as not only a working person but as a human being. He saw something there, something he could relate to as the story of his main character and with that he sent me the script a year and a half after meeting me. There were plenty of improvisions after that, what with me putting in a lot of my soul and my own belief system into what then became the final draft. There were no other choices for the lead role as Ramin saw my life in his words.”
As someone who has never acted professionally in anything during his life, the transition was something of a blind man’s conversion, “I had no professional training in any capacity and the fact that Ramin wanted me to do this was a surprise in itself. We shot it over thirty days and worked as long as 18 hours everyday, leaving behind all accepted norms of routine and procedure.”
And the financing? If it’s that easy to make an indie flick in Hollywood I have a few ideas up my sleeve too. “We actually had to make a trailer as a prelude to our idea and if that went down well with those interested in investing, we’d have something to work with. So the first thing we shot was the film’s trailer and interestingly enough, our first financer was a Jewish guy who was quite confident about the film and its potential. He was followed by Muslim and even Hindu investors.”
The thirty days of filming were followed by the subsequent event trappings of full houses and numerous rave reviews. It seemed difficult to comprehend that the seemingly easygoing man fortunate enough to have more than his fair share of serendipitous luck sitting in front of me was an undeniable critics’ darling in the making.
With all that had happened around him and everything he had seen during the reach-around that is his life, what in particular stood out for him? “I’ve met more people than I could have ever imagined, made more friends than I could have ever fathomed and undergone a multitude of life altering experiences that have given more to me than I to them. I remember when we were in Venice and the President of the film festival escorted me everywhere because he was so enthralled by the movie.
Him, the director and I went out for dinner to one of those posh restaurants frequented by Hollywood’s big players and there the waiter brought to me a leather bound book that, when opened, I saw was a collection of comments and signatures from the likes of Al Pachino, Robert De Niro and the like.
He told me to sign it and I guess it was at that moment that I felt as though I had truly arrived. Yea, that was it. My moment of deliverance.”