Man Push Cart

By Peter Fraser

man-push-cart-ramin-bahrani.jpgMan Push Cart, 2005

A look at the recent DVD release of an American independent film that examines life as a struggling immigrant in New York City

Man Push Cart pursues a minimalist storytelling technique that cinematically clearly manifests the Iranian influences of Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani in this, his second feature. The title itself is expressive of his film’s pared-down style and the austerity of its central scenario, which has both social and philosophical connotations, while its apparent functionality evokes the central character’s life of subsistence.

Man Push Cart follows Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant to New York, as he struggles to make a living during the day by selling coffee and bagels from the cart that he pushes through the lonely streets at night. We also observe Ahmad’s very tentative steps towards some kind of meaningful society as Mohammad, a relatively affluent and established Pakistani immigrant, buys coffee from Ahmad’s cart and then employs him to paint his flat. Ahmad embarks upon a halting romance with Noemi, a short-term Spanish immigrant. When Mohammad recognises Ahmad as a rock star famous in Pakistan he seeks to assist him with a musical career in New York but tensions arise between them due to their subdued rivalry over Noemi and the implicit patronage in Mohammad’s otherwise friendly attempts to find work for Ahmad.

The repetitive, rather absurd and certainly rather bleak sequences of Ahmad pushing his cart through the New York streets signal Man Push Cart as a neo realist interpretation of the myth of Sisyphus. If the revelation from Mohammad that Ahmad is actually ‘Lahore’s answer to Bono’ possibly threatens to push the absurdity too far, it is nonetheless representative of the many immigrants worldwide who move from the upper echelons of one society to the base of another. Indeed Ahmad’s attenuated story of daily survival in a foreign city can be read as a universal allegory of the challenges facing the immigrant as we discover that Ahmad left Pakistan after the death of his wife, which decisively shifts the narrative mood towards pathos and metaphorically suggests the pain involved in severing ties with one’s homeland.

ramin-bahrani.jpgDirector Ramin Bahrani

Equally it might suggest that the ‘man’ in Man Push Cart is significant from a gender perspective as Ahmad finds himself a man alone with only himself to provide for, transplanted from his native culture like a tree from its original soil, shorn of society and social purpose. Although Man Push Cart is a detailed character study, much of Ahmad’s character remains mysterious, and although it is essentially a small story, its stark simplicity invites quite large metaphorical speculations. Director Bahrani has confessed to the Sisyphus myth as a direct influence, and the tale of the Greek hero who is condemned to push a rock up a hill for all eternity has clear affinities to the situation of Ahmad pushing his cart from one place to another, day after day.

Albert Camus famously considered this to be the modern human condition and Man Push Cart is open to an existentialist reading, particularly given the abstraction in its title. On the other hand, existentialism was synchronous with western capitalism and Ahmed’s alienated situation might imply a Marxist critique. It seems clear that if Bahrani intends a central metaphor then he means it to be more ambiguous than this, otherwise he would not imply that Ahmad left his homeland for personal reasons, or possibly political, rather than economic. Nonetheless the Marxist interpretation is relevant insofar as Ahmad lives to work rather than works to live in an unequal society where his penury helps to undermine all possibility of meaningful friendship.

From another view Ahmad might be the American Dream personified: the hard working immigrant whose tireless entrepreneurial spirit will eventually ensure that he makes good. However you consider his story, Ahmad is struggling to survive in an unfamiliar city, dependent upon other immigrants for the minimal and transitory warmth that they provide, in a scattered and attenuated parody of society. In the cold darkness of night New York is photographed as a nocturnal inferno, the underworld into which Sisyphus descended, in which people burn alone, lit by headlights. This makes the film sound somewhat like Taxi Driver. The American Dream overlaid onto the myth of Sisyphus might suggest a sly satire in a way similar to that in which Taxi Driver satirises the American Dream, but with a very different approach.

man-push-cart-ramin-bahrani-2.jpgMan Push Cart, 2005

Yet Ahmad could presumably pursue his singing career in New York, and when Mohammad suggests that he do so, his response is half-hearted. It suggests that something has broken within him due to some undefined past tragedy involving his wife, and returns us to the specific character study at the story’s core. Ahmad’s painful relationship with Noemi might suggest that he pushes his cart for pathological reasons (Ahmad’s concern upon losing his cart suggests someone for whom the cart represents more than simply a livelihood). Equally Ahmad’s relationship with Mohammad hints at a masochistic streak that might lead him to inflict a self-flagellating penance upon himself for some past misdeed. Ahmad’s relationship with Mohammad moves very tentatively to delineate the intersection of class and ethnicity in immigrant communities. As a relatively successful immigrant Mohammad is a potential role model for Ahmad, presumably inverting the relationship they would have had in Pakistan when Ahmad was a rock star, ‘Lahore’s answer to Bono.’

It’s a western setting but Man Push Cart is the story of an Eastern man told in an Eastern way. It’s quite a refreshing film to see from an American filmmaker. Whether Ahmad pushes the cart or the cart pushes him is a matter for debate. It can be considered through Marxism, through the metaphysical perspectives of idealism and materialism, or through the more prosaic psychology of neurotic compulsion.

Peter Fraser is the Marketing Coordinator for Vertigo Magazine, Deputy Editor of Close-up Film magazine and a freelance journalist and writer.