I pass by a couple of people like Ahmad every day. Selling hot dogs from the cart, candy, chips, whatever – they are the faces of my commute, but nobody I consider wholly. I’ve never had a compulsion to invite them to a party or a happy hour. But what is their story? Where does the push cart go? How does it get to the block? How does the cart and the person make it to the block every day like clockwork? It is funny – writing two film essays back to back (basically). On one hand, there is the sound and fury of an almost pornographically violent Korean comedy … then there is this most quiet of films to consider. Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart has been compared to classic Italian neo-realism. I am not quite cinematically erudite enough to go there, but the film is notable to the affectations it lacks – the lack of pomp and pumped up anything … and the way that Bahrani invites us to really care about this most (on the surface) unremarkable life. He and his lead, Ahmad Razvi, embody this man with a humanity that is remarkable in its ordinariness.
The plot is so simple as to require almost no summary. Razvi plays Ahmad – who used to be a rock star in Pakistan. He has a son, who he does not get to see. He operates a push cart in New York. He might have gotten you bagels before – you probably didn’t notice. You can’t be blamed – it was cold, and really you just wanted cigarettes right then. Sure there is small talk – regulars … but no exchange of intimacy – aside from the assurance for that consumer that his world is in tact. (Look? There is the bagel guy!) Ahmad runs into one guy who recognizes him from his past life – and offers him some work. Ahmad needs the money – he is trying to own the cart outright. The guy wants to get Ahmad back into the business and has some connections. Ahmad needs the money. There is the cart down the street Ahmad visits to purchase smokes for himself. The lady there strikes his fancy. They talk – he is intrigued.
I could go on. The details are mundane – but in a way that’s the point. In a Hollywood movie, we would have learned about Ahmad’s rock career. We probably would have encountered his in laws screaming at him monstrously. The guy who tries to introduce him into the business would have been a certified snake, and not just a fairly plausible douchebag. The woman in the cart would have almost certainly evolved into a love interest. However, none of the these things happen. Bahrani is too concerned and cares too much about the sheer human element of this man to not present his life unflinchingly. For example, Ahmad’s cart gets stolen late in the film – just after he gets the final funds to buy it. Ahmad has seen a toy that his son would like, so he goes to check it out, and when he comes back, the cart is gone. Normally, this would be a horrible spoiler for me to reveal – except here that is not the point. Bahrani is not interested in the chase. The cart was here – now it’s gone. Ahmad still needs to make money.
The movie is not in the plot, it’s in the details. In that way, Bahrani and Razvi find exactly correct note after note for situations and Ahmad’s implacable, inspiring push to just … get … by. Real life is hard – plenty complicated enough to not require movie plots to be suspenseful. For instance, regard the sudden appearance of a kitten into Ahmad’s life. Of course Ahmad wants to take care of him. It is what most of us would do if such a poor thing appeared on our doorstep. Similarly, where that story thread goes is exactly right … given what we know about how life works – I don’t want to spoil it, it should be experienced as it happens, as human experience. Another great example is when some porn films get into Ahmad’s possession. How things go with that too, is exactly right. These little tiles Bahrani puts in place emerges as a mosaic fully embodying not so much the “immigrant experience” as simply, Ahmad’s story. Bahrani, by focusing so acutely on Ahmad’s travails, creates something universal, and perhaps even a quiet poem against the slander that Americans are encouraged to feel towards his ilk (though Bahrani is far too graceful to ever insist on it so explicitly).
I realize in the 700 or so words I have strung together about Man Push Cart, that one might think that nothing happens in this movie. I have indeed described such a film – but nothing could be further from the truth. Life happens – even for someone we forget … and the quest for not just a better life, but for just life – generally … is an adventure too.