Man Push Cart

Films Philos
Ramin Bahrani/United States 2006

Man Push Cart opens with almost 10 minutes of visual sequence without dialogue. Perhaps the remaining 80 minutes of film would have been better if they followed suit.

Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s story of a Pakistani immigrant who spends his days in New York City selling coffee and pastries from a sidewalk cart starts off with what seems to be a promising look at the life of one of those individuals the rest of the city take for granted. Operating in relative silence for several scenes, the film casts a documentary-like eye on the routine minutiae that fills protagonist Ahmad’s (Ahmad Razvi) life as a street vendor. Immediately, the repetition of similarly structured morning scenes allows the viewer to understand the tedium Ahmad faces early each day as he prepares his cart for his customers, with whom he makes the typically asinine small talk that amounts to the only form of human interaction he has on a regular basis.

As painful as these forced encounters are to watch on screen, the dialogue that occurs later within Ahmad’s “real” interactions proves brutal to the audience’s filmic, rather than emotional, sensibilities. As for the film’s narrative, poorly written dialogue paired with poorly performed discourses leads to what could arguably be termed the cinematic crash of Bahrani’s metaphorical push cart.

With two previous films – Backgammon (1998) and Strangers (2000) – under his writer/director belt, Bahrani should realize by now that a compelling idea does not automatically translate into a compelling film. Unnatural dialogue has a way of undermining even the most promising character’s potential – so do unbelievable events.

Man Push Cart begins its long decline when Ahmad strikes up an unusual friendship with new customer and fellow displaced Pakistani Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandoval). Presumably out of a sense of cultural hospitality, the financially well-off Mohammed offers Ahmad a night job as his personal maintenance man before recognizing Ahmad as a former Pakistani rock star and pop icon. Naturally, Mohammed is curious as to why one of his teenage Pakistani idols now works as a street vendor in America – just like the audience. Apparently Ahmad offers a suitable answer to this query during an off-screen chat over a few beers, but the audience is left to ponder the reasons for Ahmad’s strange displacement indefinitely.

Bahrani’s poorly structured narrative consistently alludes to the contrast between Ahmad’s former life and his present condition without ever explaining what exactly happened to drive him from fame to a push cart. Ever vague, the film suggests that Ahmad’s transformation from artist to vendor has something to do with his wife, who is now mysteriously deceased. This question too rests heavily over much of the film, particularly as Ahmad ponders over his feelings for a fellow street vendor, Noemi (Leticia Dolera). However, the most nagging uncertainty that runs throughout the second half of Man Push Cart is why a successful and well-connected businessman like Mohammed would want to steal Noemi from Ahmad, when he clearly has the power to pick up many a city socialite.

Such an improbable set of circumstances may be forgivable in a narrative that ultimately delivers on its intended purpose, but Man Push Cart evolves into such a mess of far-fetched situations, affected narrative style, and unconvincing performances that the promising story of Ahmad the street vendor gets lost in the muck of unrealistic love triangles and unanswered questions. Assuming that Bahrani is attempting to relate the tale of one man’s struggle against a harsh and indifferent world, it is fair to say that his point would have been better made if he ends the film about ten minutes after he begins.

© 2006 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this. The street-vendor storyline reminded me at first of Mee-Pok Man,(Singapore 1995 dir. Eric Khoo) although the latter is about a street vendor’s relationship with a prostitute he initially shelters after she has been beaten up. It, too, suffered from poor acting, although the script was better.


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