The moment Chicago-based Prashant Bhargava's debut feature Patang starts, you're immersed into an environment. It's not a setting with clearly defined characters, the way a conventional film would be introduced. It's an atmosphere that pulls you in instantly, inviting you to experience it tangibly. Before even knowing what the main narrative of Patang is, Bhargava makes it a point to allow you to feel the city of Ahmedabad first.
It's an intriguing approach that relies almost completely on the age-old cinematic wisdom of 'show, don't tell.' Characters are introduced gradually as they flow into the environment very naturally. It's as if they were always part of it, which is an accomplishment in itself in persuasive storytelling.
Set during India's largest kite festival - Uttarayan - Patang tells the story of a fractured family that comes together to celebrate despite simmering tensions among them. Jayesh (Mukund Shukla), an affluent businessman from Delhi, pays a surprise visit along with his daughter Priya (Sugandha Garg) to his estranged family in Ahmedabad. He shows up at his family home, where he meets his mother (Pannaben Soni), widowed sister-in-law Sudha (Seema Biswas) and his nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) after many years.
There are hidden motives and visible resentments between the characters, especially Chakku who claims Jayesh ruined his father, Jayesh's deceased brother Umesh. Meanwhile, Priya gets tangled in a budding romance with Bobby (Aakash Maherya) that might only last for the duration of the festival but gets them both sufficiently distracted from the drama ensuing in the family.
The film's greatest strength is its visuals. It is an exquisite display of the vibrancy and dichotomies of modern India. It's not the India of Hollywoodized slums or Bollywoodized wealth. Instead, it's real people living in a real world, much like a cinema vérité approach to filmmaking. The kites, the film's great metaphor, are captured beautifully as they soar and sway across the sky, both vying for space but also falling into a rhythm with other kites. The fractured family comes to their roof to join the festivities, the kites becoming potent symbols of their relationships, their hopes and dreams. In this respect, the visuals work stunningly.
Where the film lags is its story and character development. The narrative arc of the family that must face its past in order to move on is engaging in parts, but isn't held together consistently. There are times when the film simply gets lost in the flying kites or the ambience, almost forgetting to move the story forward. It's hard to notice at times because the visual distractions are so seductive. But the ultimate motive for Jayesh's surprise return comes out of nowhere, without a buildup or any signals.
Also, Bhargava raise numerous other fascinating issues but barely scratches at them. When one of the street children, employed to deliver kites to households, goes home one night, he's kicked out by his grandmother for not making enough money. Just when this scene piques your interest in this child's life and story, the film never returns to it.
The most gripping exchanges happen between Jayesh, Chakku and Sudha, by far the most interesting characters. They are all troubled, haunted even. And they realize they must confront their issues in order to find any sort of closure. But that is one thing Bhargava steers clear of - closure. Staying true to his storytelling technique and visual style, he doesn't neatly wrap everything up at the end. As with life, not everything is resolved and the kite, by the end, is tattered and fallen. But that too can be mended and therein lies the ultimate hope of Patang.
The casting of the film is pitch-perfect. There are only three professional actors - Seema Biswas, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sugandha Garg - while the rest of the film is populated with non-actors. Biswas is brilliant as usual, completely capable of carrying an entire scene with only her expressions. Siddiqui delivers yet another great performance, this time as a conflicted soul unsure of which direction to take in life. Of the non-actors, Mukund Shukla and Aakash Maherya are natural, bringing a rawness to their characters that even actors at times find difficult to accomplish.
Patang is a seven year labor of love for Bhargava, which shows in the meticulous detailing and how the camera just knows where to go and what to show. Premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival and subsequently screened at numerous prestigious festivals including Tribeca, Chicago and Ebertfest, Patang has been deservedly getting the exposure it deserves. It's a fluid, poetic, sumptuous visual experience, which would have been made even more powerful had the story been more fleshed out. Regardless, it's a great directorial debut for Bhargava, and a enjoyable indie that deserves to be seen.