3 stars (out of four)
"Man Push Cart," an independent movie with a passion for everyday reality, is the story of a New York City pushcart vendor, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), who almost every morning sells coffee and doughnuts to Manhattan early risers and just-arriving employees.
Ahmad is a quiet, sad-looking man and like many American big-city immigrant vendors--or cab drivers or the like--he has a more interesting background than you'd first think. He is a Pakistani immigrant who was once a well-known rock singer in his own country. But now, after a broken marriage and other problems in America, he ekes out his living as an anonymous worker in the streets. (Peddling porno DVDs is his sideline, and not one he seems to relish.)
In the course of the understated, compassionate film that follows, we watch Ahmad getting a chance at two goals: romance and personal success. He meets an attractive and lively young Spanish woman, Noemi (Leticia Doleri), who obviously likes him, and he is befriended by a rich young Pakistani, Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who enthusiastically remembers Ahmad's pop career and offers him financial help and career support.
Yet "Man Push Cart's" first-time writer-director, Ramin Bahrani, obviously doesn't intend to push the old, reliable pop-movie buttons. The possibilities that Ahmad may muff both opportunities, and that the seemingly generous but self-centered yuppie Mohammad may move in on Noemi himself, hang over the tale. "Man Push Cart" is a realistic drama about life's uncertainties.
Bahrani, an American with Iranian-born parents, lived briefly in Iran. He shows a seemingly innate feel for the displacement and alienation that infuse Ahmad's world, and his nonprofessional leading actor, Razvi, has the right skills; the star (not a pop star, and currently a businessman and community leader) worked as a Manhattan pushcart vendor for a year. Though his Ahmad doesn't necessarily convince us he's a rocker, his pushcart skills are inarguable.
Doleri and Sandoval, by contrast, are both professionals--and Doleri is an emerging Spanish star. Yet they meld easily with Razvi. Together, the trio (Sandoval only by contrast) help Bahrani develop the "other" side of Manhattan, not the go-getter world of money and sex many movies drown us in, but the angst-ridden terrain of the loners, losers and outsiders, several notches down.
Bahrani is a committed realist, an admirer of such filmmakers as Robert Bresson, Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami, John Cassavetes and Robert Flaherty. And in "Man Push Cart," he shows himself a worthy disciple. He also has a fine cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, who has worked with the brilliant Iranian-born director, Amir Naderi ("The Runner").
Most importantly, perhaps, Bahrani opens up a territory that deeply concerns many contemporary Americans: the post-9/11 schism between the west and the east. Reassuringly, he shows us people, not fanatics or cliches.
Mohammad is the immigrant who has been fully acclimated to American life; Ahmad has adjusted only part of the way. But Ahmad's concerns--his sadness and his striving--become universal. Though his early-morning riser's world is gray and threaded with melancholy, it becomes, in the end, a place we recognize. In some way or other, many of us have been there.
'Man Push Cart'
Directed, edited and written by Ramin Bahrani; photographed by Michael Simmonds; art direction by Charles Dafler; music by Peyman Yazdanian; produced by Bahrani, Pradip Ghosh, Bedford T. Bentley III. A Films Philos release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:27. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for language and sexual implications).
Ahmad - Ahmad Razvi
Noemi - Leticia Dolera
Mohammad - Charles Daniel Sandoval
Manish - Ali Reza
Duke - Farooq "Duke" Mohammad
Noori - Upendran K. Panicker