There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
What a lovely little film. With no need to follow conventions, this small, vibrant independent film floats around many wonderful moments, closely observed from one Indian city and its people during their joyous festival days. As we get to learn more about its several characters—bit by bit through its subtle, intimate touches—the movie gradually comes to us as a poetic visual tapestry that is as lively and gorgeous as those countless kites flown above the city. They may look small individually, but together they create an unforgettable sight. We cannot help but be enthralled, just like the characters in the film.
It is January 13th, and Ahmedabad, the former capital city of the Gujarat state in India, is busily preparing for one of its major annual festivals. January 14th is the day of Uttarayan, and its big annual kite festival signifies the end of winter and the beginning of spring as the Sun crosses the Capricorn on its celestial path (this is why it is one of few Indian traditional festivals held according to the Gregorian Calendar, by the way).
The plot revolves around the visit of Jayesh (Mukund Shukla) to his family in Ahmedabad, whom he has not seen for several years. This affluent, middle-aged man left the city a long time ago for a better business opportunity in Delhi, and now he is coming back to his old family house with his grown-up daughter Priya (Sugandha Garg), who is not that enthusiastic about visiting her father’s hometown but often shoots the streets and people of Ahmedabad with keen interest using her chic Super 8mm camera.
The family home is located in the corner of a small, quiet alley. It surely looks tarnished and weathered here and there, but it is not without charm in its plain but soothing appearance. Its interior looks cozy and comfortable, with the sense of long history reflected by furnitures and decoration, and you will agree with Jayesh’s small comment about this house: “Every room says something.”
Most of the family members heartily greet Jayesh and Priya. Jayesh’s aging mother Ba (Pannaben Soni) is happy to see them again, and so is his widow sister-in-law Sudha (Seema Biswas, a veteran Indian actress who is well known for her performances in “Bandit Queen” (1994), “Water” (2005), and “Midnight’s Children” (2012)). In the case of Sudha’s son Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who would soon rise further with “Gangs of Wasseypur” (2012) and “The Lunchbox” (2013) after this film), it is apparent that this young man has lots of grudges against his uncle. There was some unspecified family conflict between Jayesh and Chakku’s diseased father Umesh, and Umesh’s unseen presence, mainly represented by his photo, is constantly felt in the household.
Hamid (Hamid Shaikh), a little boy who sometimes hangs around Chakku with other kids, is hired to deliver a bunch of kites Jayesh orders for the next day, but a number of coincidences put him in a difficult situation, which leads to a sad moment when he comes back to his home late at night. Bobby (Aakash Maherya), an easygoing lad working at his father’s shop, is eager to brandish his kite-flying skills on the next day, and we later see him very excited to get his kite in the middle of a busy marketplace, which is full of various kites of different colors and shapes to be bought during the eve of Uttarayan. At one point, we get a small glimpse of how strings attached to kites are strengthened and sharpened by glistening glue and sparkling ground glass (ouch), and you may notice later that many kite fliers in the film have their fingers covered in bandages for protection.
The Day of Uttarayan begins quietly with calm morning air, but it soon becomes energized more and more as the sun goes up. There are just a couple of kites in the air during the first hour, but then, as more people gather on the rooftops, we see thousands of kites with lots of cheer and joy felt from below. Some of them are already prepared for their ferocious kite fight, and everyone looks up to the sky with thrill and excitement as many kites go down as casualties. Festival food is prepared and ready for guests in the meantime; much talk and gossip is exchanged, and the mood around people fluctuates at times just as the kites soar into the sky and then plummet into the ground.
For vividly capturing that enrapturing atmosphere of the kite festival with the realistic sense of place and people, the director/co-screenwriter Prashant Bhargava, an Indian American filmmaker who grew up under his immigrant parents on the South Side of Chicago, went through lots of preparation before moving on to the shooting process. After visiting Ahmedabad during the kite festival in 2005, he was determined to capture its rapturous spirit on the screen, and that was the beginning of his long journey which took no less than 7 years. He spent 3 years in the city to get himself immersed in the daily rhythm of the city (the occasional 8mm footage in the film was actually shot by him), and his efforts are clearly shown in the final product, which almost approaches the level of documentary for its considerable authenticity.
In the case of the kite-flying scenes, they were shot right before and during the kite festival, and they are indeed the most exciting part of the movie as accompanied with the tumultuous rhythm of fun and excitement spontaneously exuded from the real environment. After watching the film for the second time, I searched the internet for the photos and videos shot during the kite festival, and I can tell you that Bhargava achieved exactly what he aimed for in his film (“Rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim, young or old—together they look towards the sky with wonder, thoughts and doubts forgotten,” he said when he talked about the film with the late Roger Ebert in 2011. “Kite flying is meditation in its simplest form”)
The story slowly takes its shape as we get absorbed into its world and the people occupying it. The documentary-like approach of the film, exemplified by its intimate but unobtrusive camera work, makes us feel like an unseen observer. The screenplay written by Bhargava and his co-writer James Townsend only shows or suggests what is going on between the main characters while never blatantly spelling it out. We listen with more attention to what they say or imply in their interactions, and the screenplay subtly and organically fleshes them out as real people who we are willing to observe with interest and care. Chakku may be a bum with no future, as his uncle views him with the condescending disapproval barely hidden inside his words, but he is a sort of big brother to Hamid and other plucky street urchins, and one brief moment succinctly tells us how much he still feels hurt by his father’s death. Although he has attained almost everything he wants in his life, Jayesh still feels dissatisfied, and we come to sense a growing gap between him and Priya, who prefers to go around the city rather than sit beside him or other family members.
The actors in the film are believable in their scenes, which were mostly improvised from Bhargava and Townsend’s script on the spot. Although they are relatively more recognizable to some of you, a few professional performers in the cast embody their roles as naturally as the many non-professional performers. Seema Biswas has a beautiful scene of restrained grace and delicacy when Suhda has a frank talk with her brother-in-law, and you may be surprised to know that the movie is actually the first film for her co-actor Mukund Shukla, whose understated performance is another key element to carry this scene.
Sugandha Garg has a nice flirtatious chemistry with Aakash Maherya as their characters become attracted to each other after their chance encounter. The scene in which Priya and Bobby spend their time together near the river in the sunset is handled well with bittersweet sensitivity. Feeling the love toward her, Bobby believes they can have lives together as a couple, but Priya knows better as a more practical girl. She does enjoy his company, and she does feel romantic like him, but that is all. They only met each other several hours ago, as she shrewdly points out during their last minute together.
Lamps and fireworks soon decorate the darkening evening sky, and there is still excitement remaining in the air, but then, like any festival, everything comes to an end. The next morning begins with sleepy exhaustion, and we see many kites stuck on wires and cables, which look like ragged laundries hung on wash lines. People go back to their usual business, and so do Jayesh and his family, who will probably have a more pleasant time together in the next year if they just try to have more understanding.
Director Prashant Bhargava died of a heart attack at the age of 42 this month, so “Patang” becomes the sole feature film in his directorial career. Thanks to Ebert’s enthusiastic response to the film, he and his father, who was incidentally a student of Ebert’s film class and produced his son’s movie along with other family members, were invited to 2012 Ebertfest for the screening of the film, and it is sad to watch Bhargava in the YouTube video clip of the Q&A session held right after the screening. With his open, gentle face, which now looks more poignant due to his recent untimely death, he looks hopeful about taking another step forward after his impressive debut work, and he did make the next step by making a short music film, “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi,” with Vijay Iyer, last year.
When I checked Ebert’s 2011 blog post on “Patang” yesterday, its two latest comments drew my attention, and they were from none other than Bhargava. He put a link to his memorial piece on Ebert which was written not long after Ebert’s death in April 2013, and then he notified us of the wider availability of his film in June 2014. He made only one feature film, but he flew it as high as he could, and, as more touchingly reflected by its final shot now, it is really something worthwhile to keep and appreciate for what it accomplished.
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