PATANG. Director: Prashant Bhargava. Players: Seema Biswas, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mukkund Shukla, Sugandha Garg, Aakash Maheriya, Hamid Shaikh. Hindi & Gujarati, w/ Eng sub-tit. Theatrical release (Khushi Films) June 29, 2012
On the Hindu astronomical calendar, the kite-flying festival of Uttarayan marks the onset of winter, when the Sun begins its northward (uttar) trek towards a peak-Summer zenith in the celestial sphere. Because the Aryans first arrived in India during Uttarayan, it is also associated with paying respect to one’s ancestors. Taking cues from both its ancient roots and modern spin, Bhargav’s feature filmmaking debut Patang weaves together a satisfying take on family bonds that, once loosened, dangerously drift towards chaos, much like a kite in flight.
Hindi movies filmed in Gujarat (Lagaan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) usually zero in on the starkly dry vistas of the great Kuttch Desert. Counterpoint to that, Patang is set in the slums of Ahmedabad—a city of 5 million that is the economic heart of the Gujarat’s booming economy, which by some counts is the single fastest growing region in all of Asia.
A family visit by Jayesh (Shukla), a successful Delhi-based businessman, to his relatives in Ahmedabad (or Amdavad, in colloquial Gujarati) sparks restrained commotion in the household of Sudha (Biswas), Jayesh’s widowed sister in law. Sudha makes a meager living by providing home schooling in the neighborhood and supports both an elderly mother in law and Chakku, Sudha’s struggling son. Jayesh’s visit, with his pampered daughter Priya (Garg) in tow, also reignites a quiet intra-family property feud.
Kites hold universal appeal for the free-in-flight symbolism they embody. And Patang would hardly be the one Indian movie to use this allegory—it has been used oft-time in both a serious (Kites) and playful juxtaposes (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam). And yet this is exactly where Bhargav get a chance to shine. The kite-flying is ever-present and nicely connects all the characters together, including Hamid (Shaikh), an orphaned street urchin befriended by Chakku. While kites may seem harmless, they can also belong to a class of “fighter kites”—competition level masterpieces with strings dipped in ground glass to literally cut rival fliers out of the skies.
Siddique did a brilliant bad-cop turn in Kahaani, matching Vidya Balan step for step, and here underplays a rootless angst of the chronically underemployed with an uneven and unshakable sense of self defined by not having a father in his life. The other noteworthy performance is Shaikh as the street orphan, who all purposes could have wandered off from the set of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay—a life defined by grinding poverty, daily beatings and few pleasures. Then there is Biswas, who can draws attention in every frame she is a part of. Like the widow she played in Water, her Sudha here is reticent, abiding and yet never meek.
The fact that Jayesh is well off and Sudha’s not so much also presents India’s progress conundrum. Patang lays bare a collision between the alarming nature of the uneven tradeoff India has had to make with it’s own progress. Jayesh’s capital city affluence represents the new wealth that a small minority in India is taking to fabulous heights. Sudha’s family in Ahmedabad, by contrast, stands in for that other India, struggling and yet somehow grounded. Slow in parts, Bhargav deserves kudos for poignantly showcasing the clash of India-vs-India.