Vend for yourself
Man Push Cart serves up a fresh director's vision, and an unlikely star.
Thu Sep 7 2006
Milk, two sugars. Tea with lemon. Doughnut. Everyone’s got their own ritual when it comes to the early-morning vendor carts. Speed is key. Occasionally, we look up at our servers. “Customers, they’re indifferent,” says writer-director Ramin Bahrani, 31, whose Sundance hit, Man Push Cart, brings that universe to the screen. “And I’m not blaming them or praising them. It’s just that when you have to go to your job, you’re just buying a cup of coffee and you want it quick.”
Man Push Cart goes a little deeper, starting with its sad-eyed protagonist, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a hardworking Pakistani immigrant toiling in post-9/11 midtown. As he pushes his shiny cart down predawn streets, Ahmad’s resemblance to a modern-day Sisyphus is hard to miss (though Bahrani, a Columbia graduate, is happy to point it out). “Actually, my idea came out of some really bad timing,” he continues. “When 9/11 happened, all my financing collapsed for a different film that was set in Iran. And I went to France, to see if I could get the money back together, but no one wanted to be involved. When I was there, Bush began his bombing campaign of Afghanistan. I saw Afghans at the Pompidou Center, watching their country being bombed. And I thought, Who are the Afghans I knew who lived in New York? They were pushcart vendors.”
So began a lengthy process of quiet observation that in early 2003 brought Bahrani to Brooklyn’s Midwood, a heavily Muslim neighborhood where he thought he’d have some luck. “I figured many of the vendors would live there,” the young director says, noting the sense of rage he picked up from many of the residents. “Midwood had been specifically targeted by the FBI after 9/11. About half the people kind of vanished; they went underground, they were arrested, they were deported, they fled to Canada. So I just went there and started walking around. And after a couple of days, I landed one night in a sweetshop and ordered a tea and a pastry, and Ahmad served it to me.”
“He kept on coming back—because my food is really good!” says his discovery, as exuberant on the phone as he is taciturn in the film. Though Razvi, 33, had zero acting experience, his months of telling spirited anecdotes to Bahrani led the director to tailor his secret script to his subject’s life—and to offer him the part. “I think my first acting class was Man Push Cart,” Razvi says, reflecting on his character, a widower and former pop idol in Pakistan unable to move on with his life. “You know, I think somewhere deep down inside, I always wanted to be a rock star. I’ve got the long hair; I’ve had it since I was 19, like I was some kind of rebel! [Laughs] But I never thought that I would be an actor. The first take we did, Ramin was like, 'Yo! What are you doing? This ain’t Hollywood or Bollywood. Stop it with the eyebrows!’ ”
“He’s not really a rock star, but he is a rock star in his own life,” Bahrani says fondly. “Incredibly good with the ladies. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t immediately love the guy. But he also has darker things in his past, which you can see in his face if you hang around him long enough.”
Hanging around long enough is an excellent summation of Bahrani’s unmannered directorial style, which he himself compares to the doclike objectivity of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. “I do not storyboard. Ever. Storyboarding is the death of film,” Bahrani says. (He also forbids scripts on set.) “You should know exactly what you want, but come prepared for the location to offer you something exciting. People don’t believe it, but if you’re patient, these things do happen.”
The director is particularly proud of his impromptu, guerrilla style of shooting, which netted some happy accidents, as when Ahmad sells adult DVDs on the sly. “That customer had no idea he was even in the film! And he’s the one who says he gets pornos for $4 in the Bronx! Not only did he make the scene great, but he taught me how to get cheap pornos! So it’s kind of a double victory.”
Man Push Cart opens Friday 8 at the Angelika.