Between the surprise success of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," starring a who's who of venerable English actors, and "Trishna," Michael Winterbottom's subcontinental adaptation of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," India seems to be an unexpectedly happening location for movies this summer. Add to this list "Patang," a gorgeous indie flick that has been making the festival rounds and is hitting the theaters this week.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Safety Not Guaranteed']
The title refers to simple paper kites using in kite fighting. During the annual Uttarayan festival in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, neighbors square off against neighbors in spectacularly colorful battles from the rooftops. Against this backdrop, first-time director Prashant Barghava sets his neorealist family drama.
Wealthy, middle-aged Jayesh (Mukund Shukla), along with teenage daughter Priya (Sugandha Garg), journeys from the cosmopolitan Delhi to his more traditional hometown. As he barks commands to the rickshaw driver zigzagging through the narrow, crowded lanes, Priya shoots the passing scene with her Super 8 camera.
The best part of the movie is when the Chicago-born Barghva does the same thing. He reportedly shot more than 100 hours of documentary footage with small HD cameras to capture fleeting moments of grace in the dizzying chaos of the city -- the sunlight hitting a temple in just the right way, the expression on the face of street kid. In the process, he created a stunning, joyous visual portrait of Ahmedabad. It's eye candy in the best possible way.
[Related: 'Goodfella' Henry Hill dead at 69]
The movie's narrative unfolds when Jayesh returns to this childhood home, where the specter of his dead brother casts a pall over the place. While his brother's saintly widow, Sudha (Seema Biswas), greets the visitors with a smile, his ne'er-do-well nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) -- a dissolute wedding singer -- blames Jayesh for his father's death.
When the festival kicks off, the poetic visuals kick into high gear. While Jayesh displays his kite-battling prowess, Priya flirts with Bobby (Aakash Maherya), a local with a great smile. During a rooftop picnic dinner, Jayesh lays out his plan for family, which goes very poorly. The scene, though it dredges up plenty of dirty laundry, never quite reaches a dramatic catharsis. A smaller but more interesting clash occurs between Bobby and Priya. Bobby might have a motorcycle and a remarkably shiny shirt, but he proves to be a naive romantic when he confesses his love for her after having known her for only five hours. Priya, who liberally sprinkles English phrases in with her Hindi, is a modern woman and shoots him down.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'A Cat in Paris']
"Patang" is not a perfect movie -- its story is a might too impressionistic, and its characters are more quick sketches than carefully observed studies -- but it is a ravishing, beautiful look at a part of the world not often shown in American theaters. Given the trend, though, that might be changing.
See the trailer for 'Patang':