3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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A kite festival sounds like a serene setting for a film, but kite flying is a kind of contact sport in India. That knowledge adds depth to the festive backdrop of Patang (“The Kite”), a lovely film by debutant director Prashant Bhargava.
The action in Patang takes place over three days around Uttarayan, the annual kite festival in Ahmedabad. Jayesh (Mukkund Shukla) returns to his hometown after five years away to show the festival to his adult daughter, Priya (Sugandha Garg). Priya uses her video camera to record festival preparations, which include merchants strengthening kite string with a paste made from boiled rice before coating the string in ground glass. The glass-coated string allows competitors to slice the strings of opposing kites
Jayesh is financially well-off, so a lack of funds can’t explain the infrequency of his visits from his home in Delhi. The hostile reception he gets from his nephew, Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), offers a clue. Jayesh is received more warmly by his mother and his sister-in-law, Sudha (Seema Biswas), wife of his deceased older brother.
As Jayesh tries to recreate the kite-flying triumphs of his youth at a party for friends and family, it becomes apparent that he is a know-it-all. He scolds Priya for wearing a tank top and dancing in public, fearful that she’ll ruin his reputation. This drives her straight into the arms of a cute electronics store clerk, Bobby (Aakash Maheriya).
Jayesh has other plans aimed at improving the lives of his relatives, but he sets them in motion without asking for their consent. Sudha picks up on something about Jayesh: for a guy who seems to have all the answers, he doesn’t seem happy.
The story in Patang unfolds slowly and without a typical narrative structure. The film is presented in an almost documentary-style format, as though a camera crew dropped in for the three days of the festival and left immediately after. It’s enjoyably languid, but not slow.
The downside of shooting documentary-style is that it’s often impossible not to be aware of the camera. Shots are interrupted by passersby. The camera is sometimes set at an awkward distance from the actors. And the editing occasionally consists of rapid-fire cuts between closeups of the actors’ faces.
There were moments when I wanted to be able to ignore the technique and just watch what was happening. The best shots in the whole movie come from a stationary camera pointed at the sky, watching the kites as they soar.
The performances are universally sound, anchored by Seema Biswas as Sudha. After the death of her husband, Sudha becomes the head of the household, though she defers to her mother-in-law. Biswas portrays Sudha as a woman whose good-nature isn’t overwhelmed by her tremendous responsibilities or Jayesh’s attempts to control things from afar. She treats Priya with a warmth the girl doesn’t get from her father.
The most intriguing relationship is between Chakku and a street kid named Hamid (Hamid Shaikh). Chakku spends his days hanging with Hamid and several other boys of around ten, stealing from street vendors and shooting off fireworks. Perhaps Jayesh is right to suggest that it’s time for Chakku to grow up and get a real job.
Bhargava has a real knack for storytelling and atmosphere and gets great performances from his cast. I’m looking forward to his future films.