The White Tiger [Jan. 13; Netflix] Man Push Cart & Chop Shop [Feb. 23; Criterion]

On the heels of Ramin Bahrani’s third movie, critic Roger Ebert hailed him as a “new great American director,” comparing him to a young Martin Scorsese.

On February 23, the Criterion Collection released his first two films, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, on Blu-ray and DVD. With the induction of these two films into the collection, the Iranian-American Winston-Salem native takes his rightful place among the world’s master filmmakers. It’s a high honor for Bahrani to have his pictures included in the collection, which restores and releases high-quality digital prints of “important classic and contemporary films.”

The 45-year-old North Carolinian will now have his work showcased alongside other film giants like Akira Kurosawa, Agnès Varda, Federico Fellini, and Wong Kar-wai. Bahrani is certainly having a moment. Not only is his past work receiving the renewed attention that it deserves, but he’s also been garnering rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his new Netflix film, The White Tiger, released January 13. The film has been described as the “anti-Slumdog Millionaire” for its sobering and realistic look at the destructive effects of India’s caste system.

Many of the same themes that are on display in The White Tiger can be seen in Bahrani’s first feature, Man Push Cart, which follows a Pakistani immigrant named Ahmad as he struggles to climb America’s social hierarchy in New York City as a street vendor. Ahmad was once a rock star in Pakistan—one character calls him the “Bono of Lahore”—but in New York City, he’s focused only on pulling his cart up and down the streets, hoping to make enough money to secure custody of his son.

Whether this modern-day Sisyphus is successful depends less on how long he works selling doughnuts and coffee—or how much energy he devotes to pulling his cart alongside busy street traffic—than whether he can withstand the social alienation of his adopted home amid the paranoia and fear that grips New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The Criterion edition of Man Push Cart includes a handsomely printed essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri, a making-of documentary, and Bahrani’s 1998 short, Backgammon, which is notable as the only film of his to date that draws directly on his experience as a second-generation immigrant growing up in the South. In a revealing supplemental feature, the director also sits down with Hamid Dabashi, Bahrani’s former Iranian studies professor at Columbia University, to discuss his complicated feelings about growing up in the Tar Heel state and his career-long fascination with telling stories about outsiders, particularly Black and brown immigrants.

“In some obvious way, the fact that all these films are with immigrant characters or first-generation, the fact that everybody feels like an outsider—this all has to do with growing up as an Iranian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” Bahrani tells Dabashi. “Nice place, but there’s not a lot of diversity.”

A serendipitous trip to the bustling automotive repair shops and junkyards of Willets Point in Queens, however, captured Bahrani’s attention and became the backdrop for his second feature, 2007’s Chop Shop. This sophomore effort is as diverse in color and sound as Man Push Cart is muted and dark. The drama centers around immigrant siblings Ale and his sister, Izzy, as they struggle to carve out a stable life for themselves amid the chaotic chop shops in Willets Point. Ale convinces his sister that their ticket out of poverty is a food truck.

Sadly, as with Ahmad in Man Push Cart, Ale and Izzy cannot help but become ensnared in the American capitalist system that views immigrants, not as people looking for opportunity, but as sources of wealth extraction. The quiet drama of Chop Shop pivots on whether the bonds of family are powerful enough to overcome the economic forces that seem bent on dividing the siblings. Like every Criterion release, there is enough bonus content included with Chop Shop to please both casual viewers and longtime devotees of Bahrani’s work.

Among this content is a touching making-of featurette that reunites the director with actor Alejandro Polanco, who played Ale. Ironically, the former child star took a page from his movie character and now oversees a fleet of mobile car washes. Be sure to check out a far-ranging conversation between Bahrani and writer Suketu Mehta, which allows the director to share his political and social views of the world—perspectives that he seldom puts into words in his films.

Bahrani clearly understands that any cinematic exploration of what it means to be a human being today—either here in the U.S. or overseas, as he does with The White Tiger—must grapple with the evils of hyper-exploitation, racial capitalism, and colonialism. Recognizing his limitations with camera placement and visual technique as a budding artist, Bahrani says that he believed his job with Man Push Cart and Chop Shop was to force audiences to look in a direction where nobody else was looking.

After sixteen years of of American occupation in the Middle East, an economic recession, and a global pandemic, more and more Americans are joining the ranks of the working poor. You would think it would be easier for us to recognize our shared struggle, and yet Bahrani’s skill at shifting our gaze toward our shared humanity remains as essential as ever.

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