It’s interesting how things rarely change with time. There are incremental changes, sure, shifts in the way people dress or the meanings of words, but, largely, there are some things which remain. A sadness, a true melancholy, shrouds our existence, influencing the way we look upon others. In his second feature film Man Push Cart, director Ramin Bahrani (The White Tiger) focuses on a Pakistani immigrant whose hustle to create a life in post-9/11 New York City is marred by a heavy personal burden and a caste system that values him only when it can get something in return. Some 16 years after its theatrical release, Man Push Cart joins the Criterion Collection with a high-definition master supervised and approved by Bahrani, audio commentary from 2005, two new featurettes, and more.
Each morning Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) drags his food push cart from its holding facility through NYC traffic to his corner where he spends his days selling coffee, tea, and an assortment of baked goods. At the end of his day, after returning the cart and cleaning it, he wanders the streets selling pornographic DVDs. The goal is to provide a better life for his estranged three-year-old son and to help repair his own after the death of his wife. Suddenly, opportunity seems to be around the corner when he meets Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a fellow immigrant from Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan, who knows of Ahmad from his previous life in Lahore. But, like all opportunities, it seems to come at a cost.
Bahrani’s Man Push Cart works on a variety of levels. Minimalistic in several ways, Bahrani utilizes natural sounds over scoring so that when Peyman Yazdanian’s (Strangers) melodic music appears and repeats, it pulls out Ahmad’s own emotional repetition. His direction and Michael Simmonds’s (Chop Shop) cinematography are tight, pulling out the details of Ahmad at work, walking, or, in general, interacting with others. This makes each scene feel insular, Ahmad’s own psychological turmoil growing larger throughout the narrative. Bahrani’s script, written by him, is sparse, relying on conversation and Razvi’s physical performance to fill in where dialogue does not. In this way, the whole of Man Push Cart is a meditation on self and perceived personal value; perpetually heartbreaking as each scene relays some new hope against Ahmad’s despair-ridden reality. One need only consider the title against the actually action Ahmad is shown engaging in as he tries to get to his corner to set up: he doesn’t push, he pulls. It’s less poetic to call the film Man Pull Cart, but, also, the visual image of Ahmad, each day, pulling his cart presents a sort of active participation in his life. We don’t know specifically what happened that brings him to the start of the film, we only know that he’s working to pull himself up and out. If he were pushing the cart, it would seem like a burden he’s reluctant, almost forced to bear, but, by presenting it as an active action (pulling), Ahmad looks to be in charge of the decision. At no point does Ahmad complain about his life nor does Razvi convey a reluctance or unwillingness to do just about any job that will bring him closer to his goal. There is nobility here, even if it’s bathed in melancholia. In contrast, Mohammad and those whom Mohammad introduces Ahmad to are more aristocratic, unable to perceive a live as he lives. This is made explicit when Mohammad, after inviting Ahmad to his apartment to do some painting, recognizes him from Ahmad’s days as a popular rock star in Lahore. Mohammad projects a great deal onto Ahmad about his past and present without actually inquiring or demonstrating true interest. Instead, what begins is entirely a transactional relationship. Ahmad sees it and makes peace with it, but no one else seems to see him as anything more than what he was. By keeping to such scant material, the audience is forced to examine everything they see, hopefully coming to conclusions of absolute empathy and respect for Ahmad by the end.
What I find most interesting about Man Push Cart is that the setting and inspiration for it are so totally background as to be near-unimportant. Outside of one specific mention, there’s no concrete correlation between post-9/11 New York and the events of the movie. Though the majority of street workers that Ahmad engage with are immigrants, the people that Ahmad comes to know through Mohammad are all well-off, experiencing a version of New York that Ahmad does not. As the film continues and more details about Ahmad are shared, I came to wonder if the loss of his wife, played briefly by Bhavna Toor, was somehow connected to the growing xenophobia after the terrorist attack and, while there is a claim by Ahmad’s mother-in-law (Razia Mujahid) that her daughter is dead because of him, we never learn why. We don’t even learn what brought them to America in the first place. What I do presume is that they were happy and that the cart was a shared project, an opportunity for the two to build something together. In a way, this makes the cart something that he pulls like penance for past mistakes. Especially when, by the end of the film, he’s left with less than he began it with. Razvi’s performance is so nuanced in its simplicity that one can see the spark of perseverance, the will to push through, even as stands totally alone and dejected. It’s not quite hopeful, but it’s not as devastating as it might otherwise be in someone else’s hands.
Regarding the home release, it’s worth noting that this is a high-definition remaster, not a 2K or 4K restoration. As such, don’t go into the purchase expecting something revolutionary looking, but you won’t be disappointed either. Simmonds’s cinematography absolutely dazzles, capturing a version of New York without the glitz and the glamour, but as someone who lives there every day may see it. The sound, too, is remaster for 5.1 and comes through beautifully, dialogue easy to hear, the sounds of the street bringing a certain spontaneity to the narrative, and the score crisp as it underlays the pensive nature of Man Push Cart. Along with the remaster film is Bahrani’s directorial debut short film Backgammon; the aforementioned 2005 audio commentary Bahrani, Simmonds, Razvi, and assistant director Nicholas Elliott; along with an essay from film critic Bilge Ebiri. Where fans of Bahrani’s work will be interested are the two new featurettes: one a socially-distanced modern version on the 2005 commentary and another a conversation between scholar Hamid Dabashi and Bahrani (a former student of Dabashi’s). I’ve always said that the bonus features with these releases are like going to film school and the conversation between Dabashi and Bahrani allows for the opportunity to explore the inspiration for Man Push Cart, as well as the writer/director’s influences. So if you’ve seen the film, this might be the place to start before a revisit.
There’s no doubt of the resonance Man Push Cart must’ve had with audiences in 2005. A film centered on a Pakistani immigrant, one who manages a coffee cart especially, may not seem especially enticing, but the notion of centering a story on someone whom so many would presume to be a villain by association is bold. To focus on one such person whom the majority would pass by without a second look is exactly why art and artists are necessary. To shine lights on places which we might otherwise ignore, so clouded by our own lives we become that we only see the labels we prescribe and the status we believe those labels should be afforded. Ahmad is more than a man who pulls a cart, who does the jobs others won’t. For 87 minutes, others see that, too.
Man Push Cart Special Features
- High-definition digital master, supervised and approved by director Ramin Bahrani, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, assistant director Nicholas Elliott, and actor Ahmad Razvi
- *New* conversation among Bahrani, Elliott, and Razvi on the making of the film (24:41)
- *New* conversation between Bahrani and scholar Hamid Dabashi on the origins of the film and Bahrani’s cinematic influences (19:22)
- Backgammon, a 1998 short film by Bahrani
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri
- New cover by La Moutique
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection beginning February 23rd, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.