At a film festival like Cinefan, some of the more poetic things get said after a screening is over, when the movie’s crew comes up on the stage to address the audience. Consider Aakash Maheriya, a non-professional actor from Ahmedabad, who played one of the main roles in Prashant Bhargava’s fine film Patang. Too many people choose to highlight the unpleasant things about his city’s recent history, Maheriya said – communal riots, for example. “Lekin Prashant ne kuay mein haath daalkar hamaari khushiyan nikaali aur aapko dikhayee.” (“But Prashant dipped his hand in the well, found the happier side of our lives and put it into this film.”)
Much of this khushi is expressed during Ahmedabad’s vibrant kite festival Uttarayan, the event around which the film pivots. Patang is one of the least plot-driven movies I’ve seen in a while (which isn’t meant as criticism). Its slice-of-life story takes place over two days: a middle-aged businessman named Jayesh (Mukkund Shukla) visits his hometown with his young daughter Priya (Sugandha Garg); they stay with Jayesh’s mother, his widowed bhabhi Sudha (the excellent Seema Biswas in one of her too-infrequent screen appearances) and his nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in another of a continuing line of impressive performances), who sings in a wedding band. Not very much “happens” – kites are flown, the old city is explored, Sudha seems happy but a little guarded, the family engages in everyday talk, the uncle is patronising towards his nephew – but steadily, deftly, little details of character and circumstance are revealed.
Early on, with no explicit information provided about Jayesh’s current life (and given the knowledge that the film itself was made by non-resident Indians), I assumed that Jayesh and Priya had come from “abroad”. (Clearly I wasn’t the only one: someone brought it up during the post-screening Q-A.) But midway through the film it is disclosed that they live in Delhi, and one realises that this father and daughter are in some ways foreigners even though they are in the same country, a few hundred miles away; the gulf between the lives they lead in the capital and the lives of their lower-middle-class relatives in old Ahmedabad (for whom they bring such wondrous gifts as iPods and "scent") is nearly as wide as it would have been if they were in the US.
As the narrative progresses, one sees the calm but insistent hegemony exercised by the big-city man who wants to settle his mother in a posh colony that has everything he thinks she could want (“AC hai, gardens hain ... mandir bhi hai”), as well as the vulnerability of the old woman, keen to avoid offending her son. One realises that Chakku, his loud shirts and sunglasses aside, is an insecure young man, very possessive of his mother, bitter about the past and essentially childlike (indeed he spends much of his time with the poor local children, who have their own daily struggles). Another young man, Bobby – apparently smug and self-assured – finds himself out of his depth when faced with the sexual frankness of a big-city girl (and with her goggle-eyed, admiring reaction when she discovers he is a college dropout - though in truth he would have preferred to continue studying). And in Priya’s behaviour, there are hints of an unhappy, neglected childhood (her mother was too busy to come along, she hesitantly reveals, because she was “wine-tasting”).Most of this is not spelled out, it emerges through throwaway conversations. And though I understand what Maheriya meant in his quote about Ahmedabad ki khushi, it would be simplistic to describe this as a “happy” film. Seemingly commonplace early scenes – such as one where the old mother is asked to sign a document – come to suggest darker possibilities later; fractures appear in relationships. The most conventionally dramatic scene is a confrontation between Chakku and his uncle, but tension has already been building for a while, and the film’s pacing reflects this. When the kite-fliers take to the rooftops for friendly competition, the cuts become shorter and more urgent, the music more conspicuous, and though everyone is laughing and joking the event soon acquires a primal, ritualistic intensity. On the screen is a manic dance of hands (some of them bandaged) pulling at strings with increasing fervour; faces become tighter, more focused. Here is the spirit of festivity turned into the survival of the fittest (and this is, in more than one sense, a story about undercutting) – it’s possible, for a while at least, to believe that these people, nominally friends, will do anything to bring a rival kite down. These edgy scenes are later offset by quieter, more graceful night-time shots of kites with paper lanterns tied on their strings, but a point about human nature – and about sibling rivalries and class conflict – has already been made.
Patang combines a few well-chosen stylistic flourishes (such as hazy, dreamlike imagery when Jayesh recalls his childhood flying kites alongside his elder brother) with elements of cinéma vérité, including the casting of non-actors and the use of unobtrusive camerawork. Though based in Chicago, Prashant Bhargava spent months at a time living in Ahmedabad’s old city, observing the pulse of daily life, getting to know everyone from the chai-wallahs to the local gangsters. Later, during the shoot, he encouraged his crew to do the same. “In the first week we did nothing but hang out,” Sugandha Garg said after the screening, while Seema Biswas added that the camera was often left on for three or four hours until the actors became less conscious of it.
This brings a nice spontaneity to many shots, which must then have been painstakingly assembled in the editing room - the final film contains many close-ups of faces and hands, people caught in half-gestures and half-glances, and most of it works very well for this story. There are a few heavy-handed touches: the use of titles in the first 10 minutes to identify the major characters and their relationships to each other (this was presumably done to make things simpler for a non-Indian audience); a trite, over-expository conversation between Priya and Bobby during a romantic moment. But for most of its running time, Patang is a pleasingly intimate observation of small-town India (or rather, "old-city India") and of the many little complications attending family life.