Man Push Cart dumps us onto the rain-soaked, winter streets of Manhattan, before the sun comes up. It’s a lonely subculture, where immigrant newspaper carriers, street-sweepers, magazine stand operators, and food vendors set New York’s pre-dawn rhythm. From a shiny, stainless steel pushcart that glistens in the damp morning like a sleek vehicle exiting a car wash, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) provides coffee, tea, and doughnuts to jump-start the hearts of early-bird urbanites.
Ahmad’s cart is his livelihood (he also moonlights as a discreet seller of bootleg porn DVDs). But 30 year-old writer and director Ramin Bahrani, born in North Carolina before acquiring a degree in film studies from New York’s Columbia University, also perceives the pastry-filled box on wheels as an albatross. In fact, Bahrani interprets the film’s haunting, central image – a breathless Ahmad pulling his cart between a storage garage and the street-corner where he sells his wares – as a modern-day “Myth of Sisyphus.” In Albert Camus’ 1941 essay, a man spends eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down.
“The idea for ‘Man Push Cart,”’ reveals Bahrani, “came from Afghans I knew who lived outside of Iran, where I spent three years living and working after college. They were pushcart vendors. I thought of Camus, and I thought that a man dragging a cart on the street would be a modern version of that myth. That image alone seemed to be enough for me to make the film.”
“Man Push Cart” thrusts us into Ahmad’s repetitive serve-and-pour cycle. Courtesy Michael Simmonds, the film’s DP, viewers are jammed next to Ahmad’s cramped place of business, close enough to read logos on cardboard cups and feel steam rising from silver pots. Suddenly, we’re immersed in a bustling blur of hands, faces, and rapid exchanges. Donuts are handed out. Cash is retrieved. It’s not until later that the camera backs away, allowing us to assimilate these frantic pieces into a familiar, comfortable whole.
Covered in a drab, olive-colored jacket and black knit cap, Ahmad still manages to radiate handsome charisma. Long, jet-black hair flows down his back, and haunted eyes command our attention. It makes sense, then, when we learn about his past fame as a rock star in Pakistan (after being recognized by a fellow Pakistani immigrant, he’s described as “the Bono of Lahore”).
Through subtle slivers of history, we learn that Ahmad once had a wife whose life was cut short by tragedy. A young son lives with disapproving grandparents, who refuse Ahmad’s requests to visit. This emotional baggage strains the mourning man’s relationships with a yuppie Pakistani (Charles Daniel Sandoval) and a cute Spanish girl (Leticia Dolera) selling newspapers down the street.
“Man Push Cart” exists in a different New York than that which past filmmakers have immortalized. It’s quieter than the city inhabited by Woody Allen’s neurotic masses, and less trash-strewn than Martin Scorsese’s decaying “Taxi Driver” landscapes. More significantly, Bahrani’s Big Apple suggests a post-9/11 transformation absent from older films.
KD: In many scenes, Ahmad carries a gas tank around with him, for fueling the pushcart. Is it true that passersby asked if he was a terrorist?
RB: Oh, yeah. I learned that a Pakistani man with a beard is a scary thing. We were shooting in midtown on 54th and Madison at two in the morning, with lights and camera, and Ahmad setting up doughnuts. Someone walked by and asked if we were funding a Bin Laden training camp. I said, “He must really be desperate if he’s gonna make his money on dollar doughnuts and coffee.”
The gas tank is interesting. Unless your (pushcart storage) garage has a permit, you’re not allowed to leave the gas tank in the garage. Some of them have permits, and some of them don’t. The one Ahmad uses doesn’t have that permit. So he has to take the tank with him. Because Ahmad doesn’t have a van, he has to carry it around. It was really interesting to me that he always has this burden with him. He can never escape it.
KD: “Man Push Cart” leaves it up to the audience to piece together much of Ahmad’s history.
I don’t like to explain things… too much. Some people ask me what happened to his wife. I shot a lot of footage, and there are scenes that explain why they came to America, and how she died. But I cut them all out in editing. I began to think that the less you knew about it, the more involved you would be. The more you would begin to compare the specificities of your life to the emotions that Ahmad has. Emotions are true, and people respond to them. If I explained everything to you from beginning to end, you would never think about the film the next day.
KD: People might discuss it more, after they leave the theater.
RB: Great! I would love it, instead of them getting home, turning on the TV, flipping through thirty channels, then going to bed.
KD: Initially, we’re drawn into Ahmad’s world through extreme close-ups. Why did you choose this approach?
RB: One of the reasons for initially shooting with a really long lens and tight frames was because I wanted to capture and trap the characters in boxes, like pushcarts and newsstands. Meanwhile, the camera traps them within the frame. This is a big part of what the film is about – a man who is trapped by his fate. There’s a question of fate and free will. We wanted, in terms of cinema, to trap him. Also, Simmonds and I talked about revealing Ahmad slowly through the course of the film, the same way you would get to know somebody in reality. Especially someone we don’t know, like this vendor. Initially, he is a pair of hands to us. That’s how we know him. He’s just a shadowy figure.
KD: “Man Push Cart” was partially inspired by the life of your lead actor, Ahmad Razvi. How much of his actual life is reflected in the film?
RB: I had gone to Midwood, Brooklyn, which is where Ahmad is from. It was a neighborhood devastated by 9/11. A lot of people had been arrested, detained, sent back home, banished, or fled to Canada. I came to know Ahmad there. He served me a tea and a pastry in a sweet shop that his family owned, and that he managed. I came to learn that he had been a pushcart vendor for a year. That obviously interested me. He was so charismatic – we became friends over the course of a year. I began to rewrite the main character of my script, emphasizing more of Ahmad’s actual life and character. Then I asked him to play the lead. Fortunately for me, he accepted. He’s incredibly good in it.
KD: Is it true that you prohibited cast members from having final scripts on the set?
RB: Yes. I think the filmmaker should know exactly what he wants. He should be prepared to the last detail. Everything. The color. The camera. The actors. Then he should arrive on location completely empty and ready for all of it to change. I think for nonactors to see the script means I will limit their dialogue. I can’t talk or write exactly how Ahmad does, and I don’t want to. I tell the actors, “The scene is like this. You can say things like this. Let’s start rehearsing it.” They will rehearse it in their own language, and they may change things. They may make it different. If I think it works, I will use it. If I don’t, I will pull them back closer to what I’ve written. I can’t say the movie is improvised, because it isn’t. But definitely in terms of words and language, I don’t like them to say the words I’ve written unless it’s absolutely imperative for someone to comprehend the story. I would rather Ahmad speak the way he speaks. Things could change and become more naturalistic while we’re working.
KD: Ahmad sells bootleg DVD porno on the streets, to supplement his income. How widespread is this practice?
RB: You see it everywhere.
KD: Were there moments during the shoot that occurred naturally – not from the script, but from the spontaneity of the moment?
RB: There’s a lot, yeah. When Ahmid is selling DVDs and he sells them to this guy on the street, another guy comes up to make a delivery. He asks to look at the DVDs, and says he can buy them for $4 dollars in the Bronx. This guy has no idea we’re filming. So he turned around afterwards, saw the camera, and asked what was going on. I asked for his signature on a release form. Not only did he make the scene great, but also he taught us all where to get cheap pornos (laughs)! A complete improvisation. It just happened, like a documentary.
KD: Ahmad was also called on to find extras and load equipment…
RB: I made Ahmad do everything. I didn’t want him thinking, and I wanted him tired. He slept on my sofa for the whole film, on a diet of beer and cigarettes.
KD: Much of “Man Push Cart” was filmed at night. It looks natural, unlike many “night movies” where obvious, artificial lighting has been added. Was it challenging to find locations that would lend themselves to this method of lighting?
RB: Locations were very carefully chosen. Simmonds and I specifically chose streets that I wanted, in terms of how they looked. But also in terms of streets that had enough available light to shoot in. The corner we picked for Ahmad had Christmas lights. I didn’t put them there. It also had a giant window behind him, which exuded light. It had a deli across the street, which provided light. For streets where Ahmad was dragging his cart, we always picked those that had enough natural light to shoot on, without having to pump in a bunch of artificial lighting. Otherwise, it looks like a film, as opposed to something real. The courage to do that came from “Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” a very nocturnal LA film that actually has a lot of similar themes, about a man kind of trapped by his fate.
KD: The film depicts a gradual, organic flow of people in the early morning, starting with street sweepers, newspaper carriers, and pushcart vendors, before the massive flow of pedestrians.
RB: I spent a lot of time in the middle of the night with guys that do these things. We had so much footage of it, and I tried to use just enough that you would tell me this – and not be bored. It was very tough in editing to decide how much to show. For example, the girls driving by in the limousine pulling their shirts up… this really happened. I saw this so many times in the middle of the night… girls flashing pushcart vendors. I used to hang out with one pushcart guy on 54th & Madison, because I wanted to shoot there. So I spent a few months there with him. It happened maybe four or five times. Sometimes, they would tease you. They would go by, promise, and then they wouldn’t flash.
KD: You cite Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” as an inspiration for the film. The essay concludes with Sisyphus happy, despite his struggles. Do you feel that Ahmad leaves “Man Push Cart” as a happy man, despite the film’s downbeat ending?
RB: Even though Ahmad has a very long struggle ahead of him, I imagine him being able to move past certain things in his life. I can’t say he has an easy life, and I can’t provide Hollywood solutions, because that doesn’t mesh with reality. But I imagine him happy, and ready to keep struggling.
KD: Do you feel that some people have a predisposition towards happiness, despite saddling serious burdens, while others are inherently unhappy, regardless of the opportunities thrown their way?
RB: I think what’s interesting is our inability to accept things as they are. By which, I don’t mean you should be inactive. You can never convince me that there will be world peace, or an end to hunger. That’s not gonna happen, and history has shown us that. But I don’t say that as a pessimist. Even though one accepts that, one should still fight for those things to change. You should struggle, as Camus says, to reach the heights anyhow. But to expect that you could reach it, or to expect that these things would happen, goes contrary to ten thousand years of history.
In America, from a very young age, they have a flag on a very high pole that says “Success.” And if you don’t get to the top, you’re considered a failure. The best example of this, in contemporary art, is “Death of a Salesman.” Why is it a failure not to be a success? Is it unhappy for Ahmad, to have to re-start his life? No. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe that’s okay, because he has managed to leave something behind.
KD: Maybe it’s freeing…
RB: Maybe it is freeing! And he has the dignity, sensitivity, and humanity to help someone else who needs help, even during the worst time in his life. Maybe we can all look at that and say, ‘How can I take that, and change my life? How can I have that attitude with someone? How can I be as friendly as the customer in the film is to Ahmad, near the end of the film, when he really needs someone to be friendly to him?” Maybe these things are more important than me telling you that Ahmad has a brand new cart and lives with his son in midtown. Maybe that’s nice too, but maybe this is good, also. Maybe it’s more matching to the reality.
Posted on October 2, 2006 in Interviews by KJ Doughton
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