Many films have been already made about immigrants from the so-called third world (poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America) to hyper-modern cities of the West. Most of these films draw a general picture of the problems and miserable conditions of many immigrants, but here is a film which manages to capture the psychological suffering and deep depression of many of them.
The Iranian–American director and writer Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart is an exploration of alienation and poor souls in exile in a moving and artistic way.
The film tells the story of a young Pakistani in New York, who earns his living selling drinks and treats from a push cart.
In amazingly gripping shots of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) dragging his cart in the dim light of early morning through the streets of New York, Bahrani makes a poetic metaphor for those wandering travellers, who carry their homes on their exhausted shoulders. Ahmad, an athletic handsome man, who was a pop star in his homeland, looks too small and helpless here. He moves carefully and slowly among giant trucks and speedy cars, which almost run him over.
In this jungle of asphalt and steel Ahmad looks like the little stray cat he adopts. We gradually know that Ahmad had abandoned his musical career in Pakistan to marry the woman he loved, and moved with her to the U.S. that his wife died a year ago for a reason we do not know, and that his mother-in-law blames him for her daughter’s death and prevents him from seeing his only child. Only his father-in-law tries to be kind to him.
The narration moves slowly, as if the film itself identifies with the life of its protagonist and his cart. It moves slowly, for sure, but it doesn’t lag or get lost. It knows well its steps and where it is going. Ahmad meets Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani yuppie, who used to know Ahmad in Lahore. Mohammed tries to help him. Ahmad also meets Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a young Spanish girl and love grows between them. It seems that life is finally going to smile at him. But only then we gradually discover the real problem with Ahmad. He is incapable of living up to the new life offered to him. His feeling of guilt for his beloved wife’s death and losing his son and his career overcomes him. His “friends” also let him down. Noemi doesn’t understand him. Mohammed has an eye for Noemi and patronizes Ahmad. He even kicks him out of his house.
Ahmad Razvi is impressive in his role. Although he merely moves or talks, his face and body language tell everything. When his little cat becomes sick and dying, the doctor blames him for feeding her milk instead of water. Ahmad accepts the death of the cat in total despair. It seems here that the cat is also a metaphor for his dead wife. Probably he gave her too much love.
Ahmad loses the girl, his friend, his son, and his cat, and finally even his cart is stolen. When it seems that this is the end of the world for him, a little window of hope opens. Completely redeemed, it seems that the new traumas wiped the past ones. Having reached the lowest pit of despair, he might now be able to begin again from the scratch.
However this is not an optimistic film. It is rather a study in the feelings of alienation and despair of outsiders and immigrant communities in big cities. Bahrani manages to get into the deep sadness of living in the dark side of life behind the back streets of New York. And although he may not be aware of it, he describes an environment in which despair and violence are allowed to intensify.
Man Push Cart never loses its realistic vision. It mixes documentary elements with fictional ones in a DV-Cam style. It also refuses to sentimentalise or melodramatise its topic or characters. Although Ahmad is a singer, we never hear him sing or complain about his suffering. When he remembers his past happy days in his homeland he listens to a CD, and we hear his voice, coming from very far away.