At the recent Cinefan festival, some poetic things were said when a just-screened movie’s crew came up on 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, which won a Special Jury Award at the fest. 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 around which this film pivots. The slice-of-life story takes place over two days: a middle-aged businessman named Jayesh visits his hometown with his young daughter Priya; 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). Not very much “happens” — kites are flown, the old city is explored, the family engages in everyday talk — but steadily, deftly, little details of character and circumstance are revealed.
Thus, one comes to see the 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, possessive of his mother and bitter about the past. Another youngster, Bobby — apparently smug and self-assured — finds himself out of his depth when faced with the sexual frankness of a big-city girl. And in Priya’s behaviour, there are hints of an unhappy childhood. Most of this is not spelled out, it emerges through throwaway conversations.
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 come to suggest darker possibilities later. 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 — it’s possible, for a while at least, to believe that these people, nominally friends, will do anything to bring a rival kite down (and this is, in more than one sense, a story about undercutting). 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 sibling rivalries and class conflict has already been made.
Patang combines a few well-chosen stylistic flourishes 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, and this brings a nice spontaneity to many shots. There are a couple of heavy-handed touches, but for most of its running time, this film is a pleasingly intimate observation of small-town India (or rather, “old-city India”) and of the many little complications attending family life.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer