Amal (2008) dir. Richie Mehta
Starring: Rupinder Nagra, Naseeruddin Shah, Vik Sahay, Roshan Seth
Opening this week in Canada is Richie Mehta’s “Amal” – a wonderful first feature from the promising new writer/director. It tells the story of a humble rickshaw driver in New Delhi, India who, by nature of his selflessness, influences a dying man to bequeath his fortune to him. Mehta uses a delicate hand to convey old-fashioned yet profound values of goodwill and benevolence.
Amal (Rupinder Nagra) is a poor auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi. Despite objections of his mother and an opportunity to work for more money and less hours at the post office Amal chooses to live out this working class legacy of his deceased father. One day Amal drives an elderly curmudgeon like he would any customer and politely refuses extra money for his good service. Amal would never meet him again, but the man has clearly been affected by Amal's pride in his job.
When the elderly man, who we now discover has a name (G.K.), dies, we meet his greedy relatives who clamour for their inheritance (the amount of which is never mentioned). Clearly G.K. was something more than just an ordinary fare. Instructions on his will state that the assets would be frozen for 30 days so Amal could be found so the money can be bequeathed him. The humilty of Amal contrast against the greed of G.K.’s family creates a tense and unpredictable conflict of morals.
The story is so simple it feels as if I’ve seen the film before. Sure there's some of “Melvin and Howard” in there, and a bit of Vittorio de Sica (“Umberto D”) but the feeling was like an adaptation of a fairytale I had read as a child. There’s an unabashed moral or lesson to take home at the end, like “Crash”, a similar urban story about how fate causes their characters to see their own faults. Mehta never proselytizes his ethics though. "Amal" is also aided by its low budget aesthetic, which helps bury its themes in a thoroughly modern cinema-style.
Mehta and his production team, cinematographer Mitchell Ness and Production Designer Mark Gabriel (both relative newbies as well) create a completely authentic visual design. They may have been influenced by the work of Michael Winterbottom who loves to shoot 'from the hip' on the real streets of populated places. “Amal” has the same sense of realism as “In this World” or “A Mighty Heart”.
Some fine editing work is contributed by Stuart McIntyre who creates great rhythm and a momentum which gathers steam as the film progresses – a rare quality for a first feature. With the multiple locations, rickshaw driving footage, and hustle and bustle of the real Delhi streets, there’s always something interesting in each frame and every scene seems fresh and distinct.
But the film succeeds because of a dramatic screenplay filled with all the essential elements of great cinematic storytelling. Mehta and his co-writer/brother Shaun are conscious of when to reveal their precious information. And everything is timed perfectly.
If there’s room for improvement ironically it’s the character of Amal himself. Amal is made almost saintly and overly precious. Amal is impossibly considerate, humble and unassuming, one wonders if he has ever come into conflict with anything or anyone? This was distracting at first, but by the end, but I realized Amal isn’t so much a character as an ideal to achieve to which the supporting characters react against. The final moments of narration is a little heavy and obvious, but it successfully conveys in entertaining fashion the important message - strive to be content with one's self, because the poorest man can also be the richest.
"Amal" shows remarkable cinematic maturity for a first feature - a technically assured little gem which will help you reconcile your own anxieties and concerns about life.
"Amal" is being released in Canada August 8 by Seville Pictures. A U.S. release is pending.