Man Push Cart
2005Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Ahmad Razvi, Leticia Dolera, Charles Daniel Sandoval
onsider all the anonymous people you meet on a regular basis—the guy bagging your groceries, the woman ringing up your morning coffee, or even the server at your favorite restaurant. How much do you really know about them? Certainly, they lead lives beyond your impersonal encounters, but whatever that may entail remains implicitly understood and never comes to the forefront within your brief and—let’s face it—convenient relationship. Do you ever wonder what the person on the other side of the counter does or thinks once your transaction is complete? These questions form the basis for the brilliant film by Iranian director Ramin Bahrani who centers his narrative on a street vendor named Ahmad—one such person, familiar to many but intimately known by few.
Man Push Cart draws obvious comparisons to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief—the cart Ahmad pushes around the city represents his livelihood in the same way that the bike stands as the breadwinning means for De Sica’s downtrodden hero—but in many ways, Man Push Cart takes a contemporary stance on the efforts of the Italian Neorealist movement, tossing in a little Bresson as well for good measure. It’s a movie concerned not only with the personal drama of its central character, but the environment in which his plight unravels. The events stem not from the melodramatic machinations of a screenplay, but a naturally unfolding series of incidents that lead to a startlingly devastating finale.
Part of what makes Man Push Cart such an astonishing film is the way it provides a conventional enough narrative only to dodge the duties of depicting that story in a straightforward manner. The bulk of Ahmad’s suffering occurs before the start of this film. By the time we arrive, he has already fallen into obscurity and depression. His wife is dead, he has been alienated from his son and family, and his former career as a semi-successful musician in his native Pakistan has come to an untimely end. But Bahrani reveals none of this outright, instead divulging Ahmad’s personal life in fragments, allowing glimpses of his former grandeur and happiness through conversations and visual reminders. All we know about him at the start of the film is that he’s some anonymous man pushing a food cart around New York.
To those he serves on a day-to-day basis, he amounts to nothing more than that. They interact with him, smile at him, maybe even say hello, but they don’t really know what led him to his current situation. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who pushes a cart around New York City for a living doesn’t do so because they genuinely enjoy the activity. But the public’s expectations of those in the service industry provide little room for personal expression and few, if any, want to know about the hardships of the person they’re buying coffee from while rushing to a business meeting.
Some of Ahmad’s patrons feign interest in his background. One of his customers even recognizes their shared Pakistani heritage but, instead of simply using this fact to generate a bond between himself and Ahmad, he uses it as leverage to enlist Ahmad to paint his apartment, finishing the job his last employee abandoned. However, when he discovers that Ahmad is in fact a famous Pakistani musician, his attitude toward his former beast of burden sharply changes and he suddenly offers him a beer and insists that he take an extended break.
Ahmad accepts his role with baffling impassivity. We see injustice leveled against him, but he remains unaffected by it. His position in this film reminded me of the donkey Balthazar in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Not that Ahmad arises to the level of a dumb beast, but that he approaches his duty with the same quiet dignity, never revealing to the audience the frustration he must feel in his line of work.
Like the best of the Neorealist filmmakers, Bahrani doesn’t interpret his characters’ actions, nor does he judge them accordingly. His camera merely examines them from afar. They may do wrong, they may make poor decisions, but the camera never interferes. By the end of the film, when Ahmad’s world comes crashing down, it feels that much more devastating since we know that the harsh reality of his situation provides little chance for satisfying closure.
Man Push Cart is currently playing in limited release.