This month, 30-year-old Columbia alum Ramin Bahrani could become the first New York filmmaker to break out at this year’s Sundance. His quiet and expert Man Push Cart follows the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani vendor who wakes in the middle of the night to stock his midtown cart with bagels. A former pop star in Pakistan, Ahmad’s now a widower with an estranged son, and he finds comfort in the circumscribed routine of his scrubbed silver box—partly because life is so messy outside of it. Bahrani spoke to New York.
How’d you start this project? When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.
But the character is partly based on Razvi, who is Pakistani, and who’d never acted before. When I met him, he was serving me a coffee in a pastry shop in Midwood. It turned out he’d been a pushcart vendor eight or nine years ago, and we became friends. He’s incredibly charismatic, but the more I hung out with him, the more I’d see these dark moments in his life.
Razvi is terrific. He obviously picked up acting quickly. Well, in every other shot of his screen test, he was trying to be Brando. I said, “If you’re just trying to use this film to get laid, I’m going to throw you out, man! I’m going to have three or four pushcart vendors dying for the part!”
Didn’t you abuse him on-set? I had him unloading the truck, getting food, anything to keep him from thinking he was someone important. He slept on my couch, and I never let him get much sleep. I wanted him tired. Ahmad complained. I said, “I told you it was called Man Push Cart. Did you think we were going to tow it?”
I expected a movie about a pushcart vendor to look gritty. Instead, your cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, has shot one of the best-looking New York films I’ve seen in years. You can’t make a New York film and escape the shadow of a movie like Taxi Driver, but that’s such a dirty film, and New York doesn’t look like that anymore. I used to live in midtown, and I just remembered how strange it was to see homeless people sleeping next to the Louis Vuitton building. But you can’t escape the fact that that building looks nice, that those big windows are beautiful.
You started this film after September 11. The attacks are never mentioned in the film, but they were definitely on our minds. Just making this, we were accused of being terrorists by people on the street—you know, Ahmad has that gas tank [a propane tank used in the pushcart] … Well, we found out that a Pakistani guy with a gas tank really scares people. And in one scene, the guy in the bar who says he has been stabbed [by people who called him a terrorist] was really sliced open, exactly that way. Only he rang the bell at Ahmad’s apartment, and Ahmad found him bleeding in the hallway.
But in the movie, he’s showing off his scar to impress girls. We try to get that complexity.You’re already working on two more films, the second of which is also set here, right? It’s about a brother and sister who love each other—maybe too much. They live in Queens, in a place called the Valley of the Ashes. It’s been called the bleakest part of New York, but people seem to love it there. And I think it’s a great place to shoot a movie.