Friday, April 30, 2010

Man Push Cart

Directed by Raman Bahrani in 2005, Man Push Cart depicts the story of a former Pakistani rockstar who now earns a living by selling coffee and donuts from his pushcart on the streets of Manhattan.

The protagonist Ahmad, is a young man who seems numbed from the joys of life, because he has stopped living. He now only exists. He fends a way of living by rolling his push-cart during the early hours of dawn and arranging his mobile boulangerie to serve his customers with a fresh cup of coffee and donuts while they rush through the streets to get to their jobs. The bustling city around him is contrasted with Ahmad’s morose life with little else happening other than finding menial jobs to make ends meet.

His meeting a fellow Pakistani who recognizes him as the once famous Pakistani singer allows him the company of someone who not only understands his plight, but also is willing to help him. His possible romance with a Spanish girl at the magazine stand does not develop because Ahmad’s past does not let him. His love for his dead wife and longing to see his son who is in the care of his in-laws are verdict to his want to belong and his attachment to family. Ahmad also finds a kitten and takes it home to care for it. His very own little friend.

The story reflects the life of those in the streets of big cities who are often ignored, yet play a vital role in many peoples’ lives. Hunger pangs are satiated by a quick donut, or some bread that is easily available at the pushcart. Who would bother to ask the name of a vendor? Or care to know about his past? Why would anyone want to pause to think about their lives, their struggles for livelihood and their families? The stark contrast between the very well off and the not so well off is brought out with the selection of the theme. But for me, it ends there.

My first reaction to Ahmad’s character was that of a lack of life. There was a certain listlessness in his appearance, a lag in his thoughts and actions. For some reason, I felt a certain disconnect. Although I’m sure that the director only intended the bleakness in his character to embody his true inner struggle, the actor failed to communicate it in a believable performance. The emotions simply fell limp. Maybe he’s devoid of feeling any emotion, but that didn’t materialize in effect either.

The inability of the actor to translate the essence of his lonely being disappointed me immensely. Since the entire story revolves around creating sympathy for this character and people who may be leading lives like him, but more so for this particular character because of his past stardom, a weak presence only deteriorates the threads that hold the story together. The vacant eyes of Ahmad were not a vacant that conveyed a void, but a shallow dissonance of expression.

Ahmad’s desperation in the end when he loses his pushcart falls flat. The only part in the film when emotions rise and his frustration reaches a height, Ahmad’s acting does not convince me. Still. How he goes back to being the man with a new pushcart remains unexplained. Forgivable, as this is not an area of concern since it only underlines the fact of how someone when pushed beyond his boundaries and on the edge of living on a shoestring would go to any extent to retain a job they hold valuable.

The film has a good story, with an intention of exposing the lives of the people who live unrecognized, with little money and no real hopes, except to fend for themselves and their families. Watch it for its portrayal of the fight for survival at the most basic level, its attempt at expressing how a man’s past can be a closed chapter once the leaves of happiness fade.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Revolutionary Road

A British-American drama directed by Sam Mendes in 2008, Revolutionary Road starrs Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The screenplay is based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Richard Yates.

Revolutionary Road takes us through the lives of a couple, the Wheelers, living in suburban Connecticut in the 1950’s. Frank and April meet at a party and get married. They create a life of their own with a house and two children, Frank with a stable job and April playing the housewife. They have a home that is perfect, well looked after, a manicured lawn and “modern” furniture. Cigarettes and martinis are a dominant part of their routine lives. As the days and months pass by, there sets a certain uneasiness in April about their regular existence.

April wanted to be an actor, but gave it up because she wasn’t good enough for it. Frank tried to be supportive but asked her to get over the dream simply because it would be better for both of them. The argument the two have over it gets nasty, and we see the buildup of the stress between them in having to prove themselves. The scene ends with a haunting silence as the couple sits in the car, heaving, exhausted, disconnected. It sets the theme of the film beautifully.

The Wheelers were a young couple who seemed like the unconventional sort, young and fresh and different. The lady who sold them the house, Mrs. Helen Givings, visits April one day and tells her that the first time she saw them, they seemed “special”. We see a certain sadness on April’s face when she hears these words, like as though, knowing they were special, they still led regular lives, like regular people. Her expression conveyed a yearning to be what people believed them to be. Taking a house on Revolutionary Road seemed ironic with them leading a life that is no different from the people around them.

April remembers how during the early days of their romance, Frank had told her how he always wanted to go back to Paris, because “people are really alive there, not like here”. He tells her how all he knew is he wants to really “feel” things. April’s memory of that conversation motivates her to start thinking of a change in their lives, of going to Paris! Frank can quit his meaningless job, while she can work to support him. This would give him time to think about what he really wants.

Convinced by this idea, they go about telling their friends, who feel that the plan might be immature. Frank is offered a promotion, and April gets pregnant. She goes to the extent of wanting to abort the baby, lest it affect their decision of moving out. Frank reconsiders the whole plan as he gets an offer of good money at his job. In the end, the whole unrealistic aspect of the plan comes to surface and Frank convinces April out of it. She gives up too, and continues her daily dreaded life, looking after the house while Frank joins the morning march of men in suits and hats.

This movie got me thinking of several things. How many of us exist like the Wheelers? Resigning ourselves to the daily grind because one needs to “settle down”? When April tries to convince Frank about the idea, she tells him, “We’ve bought into the same ridiculous delusion - this idea that you have to resign from life, and settle down, the moment you have children. And we’ve been punishing each other for it.” We see in her a desperate urge to get out of the rut and lead “interesting lives” believing that she would be happier. She knows that Frank is more content, married to her, with two kids and a home. The real struggle is within April. The plan is largely motivated by April’s own needs. We see the loneliness of the woman who spends all day at home tending it, knowing she wants something different, something that she longs for outside the small world of the home and husband. The desperation with which April goes about in wanting the plan to happen suggests her frantic urge to salvage her one chance. Her one chance to be free from the delusional world they are living in.

John, Mrs. Givings’ son, is believed to be “unwell” and was at the mental institute.
We see that his real problem was in telling the truth. He is the only person who understands what the Wheelers want, to get away from the emptiness and hopelessness of their lives.
He observes, “Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” He sees the frustration that a couple like April and Frank are going through and understands why they want to run away from their current existence.

A character like John is interesting to understand what people think of insanity. His ability to see the truth, tear away the façade in which the couple was living in, and strip away their denials is astounding. So what is truth? And what is insanity? Like Frank said, “Insanity is the inability to relate to another human being. It’s the inability to love”. But then isn’t what John sees the actual truth? In the real sense, it is John who sees life stripped from its plastic existence. He sees reality in all its bareness. The truth is hence, the reverse. It is the people who live in a façade that are insane. Love becomes a compulsion to allow for the smooth order of things. Love becomes an “ability” that is developed. Life becomes predictable; everyone becomes carbon copies of each other. The façade becomes the accepted norm and people are conditioned to believe in its rightfulness, in the process denying themselves their true spirit. So who is really insane?

The Wheelers are defeated in their attempt to be different. April is crushed under her fate. The last scene where April stands looking out of the window with the bloodstain on her skirt is powerfully symbolic. It’s like a permanent stain on their lives, on their neat carpet and clean house. A mark of irreversible devastation.

The film takes the American Dream to tragic levels, as the dream turns into a nightmare. The choice that one needs to make between wanting to just survive or “live” is stark in its honesty. Although many of us continue existing, how many of us really have the drive to see that spark in us and chase our imagination? The plan that April had might seem a tad bit unrealistic, but the fact that she wanted a way out shows how a person with potential can still be stifled under the norms of “living”.

In Frank also we see a need to be free and want to explore real things and “feel” things, but at the cost of what and whom? What about the children who need to be taken care of? How do we live the life that we always want to, yet manage to fulfill the roles we are meant to? More importantly, how do we really know what we want? These are questions that the film raises.

Powerful dialogues, with equally powerful acting and music, this film takes the concept of “living” to a completely different level. The phenomenal performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet engrosses us to live their experience.

We know no bounds to our fantasies, but how much of it can definitely be real? Watch it for its ability to move you to a point where you evaluate your own existence.