Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s first feature grabbed the spotlight when it was screened in 2007 at the Toronto Film Festival. After Deepa Mehta (no relation), Richie Mehta is only the second Canadian desi to have his film debut at Canada’s most prestigious festival. Simply outlined and carefully told, this heart-warming story of simple-minded and honest auto rickshaw-driver in New Delhi resonates with beautiful, existential pathos.
Mehta’s camera astutely follows the titular Amal (Nagra), a shy journeyman making a living ferrying school kids and office workers. Amal’s daily ventures include giving a ride to the just-as-shy Pooja (Purie), who takes more than a passing interest in the generous driver. Amal’s very ordinary existence takes a sharp turn when he picks up the derelict G.K. Jayaram (Shah), who shares an intensely fateful, short ride with Amal. Unbeknownst to Amal, Jayaram is a reclusive billionaire who—before the ride is over—privately wills his entire fortune to the rickshaw driver. Jayaram’s passing sets off a frenzy involving his lawyers and chagrined relatives—all of whom need to suddenly locate the difficult-to-pin-down Amal.
Based on a short story by Shaun Mehta (the director’s brother), the plot unfolds like a lazy novella whose pages turn slowly. And therein lies the charm that hooks the viewer into the film. In an otherwise mundane life, even small acts of courage are amplified. Amal taking a street orphan to the hospital and befriending her after she is victimized by a hit-and-run driver is a selfless act of kindness. Amal following all traffic rules and never cheating his customers also attests to his character.
Nagra seamlessly disappears into Amal’s role. Restrained and carefree, Nagra’s Amal comes across as an amateur afraid to appear on the world’s stage for fear that the carefully chiseled reality he enjoys will be shattered if any outsiders are allowed “in.” Amal’s “gift” in the form of Jayaram’s fortune thus poses a quirky wrinkle on Amal’s already fateful journey.
Shah is wonderfully arrogant as the disgruntled billionaire who twilights as a pauper. Biswas, as Jayaram’s determined lawyer whose sole mission is to locate Amal, and Sheth, as the morally ambiguous Suresh who helps in the search, also provide credible support. Biswas and Sheth even manage to squeeze sidebars of morality plays from their limited roles.
Not unlike Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in several scenes—the abject poverty of the street characters itself lends texture to the goings on—Amal, in the hands of the Mehta brothers, also brings to mind the late Peter Seller’s simpleton role inBeing There. If one were seeking a break from the boisterously loud Hindi films that most often find their way to the big screen in North America, Mehta’s Amal is the perfect antidote: calm and satisfying. By promising small and delivering big, Mehta and his team deserve kudos for a powerful film.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.