Director doesn't follow formula in Ebertfest feature 'Patang'

CHAMPAIGN — When it comes to films from India, most moviegoers are familiar with Bollywood extravaganzas in which actors frequently break into song and dance, or slick productions like the rags-to-riches "Slumdog Millionaire," which won the 2009 Oscar for best picture.

Now comes Prashant Bhargava, a director who grew up on Chicago's South Side and spent seven years in India making a much different movie: "Patang."

"Patang" ("The Kite") — to be shown at 4 p.m. Saturday during Roger Ebert's Film Festival, which opens Wednesday at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C — is among just a few neo-realist movies set in India that made the international film-festival circuit last year. Now there are more, plus many more being made in India, because of easy access to digital technology, Bhargava said.

Making "Patang," his first feature, was a transformative experience in many ways for the 39-year-old, who for 15 years directed and designed commercials, music videos, title sequences and promos.

He estimated he devoted 20 percent of his adulthood to "Patang," along the way realizing his own cultural journey and his calling as a filmmaker: to allow people to live on screen.

That seemed to happen literally in "Patang." Ninety percent of his cast members were non-actors. He cast them in their real-life roles and preserved their daily environments.

"For example, Bobby, the 19-year-old — it's not only his first kiss on camera as an actor, it's his first kiss in real life," Bhargava said. "So that was the model, that everyone should experience what they're going through.

"If someone is flying a kite, they're really flying a kite. If someone is praying at 6 in the morning, they're really praying at 6 in the morning. If they're cooking, they're really cooking."

To make the non-actors feel comfortable with him, Barghava, before he began to shoot the film, traveled to Ahmedabad for three years, spending two months each year there, immersing himself in the ways of the old city while shooting with small HD cameras.

"I became acquainted with its unwritten codes of conduct, its rhythms and secrets," he wrote. "I would sit on a street corner for hours at a stretch and just observe. Over time, I connected with shopkeepers and street kids, gangsters and grandmothers. The process formed the foundation for my characters, story and my approach to shooting."

His story: "When a Delhi businessman returns to his childhood home in Ahmedabad for India's largest kite festival, an entire family has to confront its own fractured past and fragile dreams."

Virtually everything Bhargava wrote in his script remained in the movie. But he allowed his actors to improvise and to share intimate moments in their lives.

After seeing "Patang" at the 2011 Chicago Film Festival, Ebert wrote he was struck by Bhargava's skill in introducing a large number of characters and organically showing how they interact, particularly within a family.

"The movie has interlocking stories that are clear enough, but it doesn't follow a rigid narrative map," the critic wrote. "It reminds me more of Robert Altman's gift for plunging into the middle of a community of characters and giving them freedom."

With his next movie project, Bhargava is changing course, at least with subject matter.

"Highlands" will be about manhood and the pursuit of perfection and set on a golf course on the South Side of Chicago. It will have an African-American cast; Bhargava is collaborating with another person on the script.

But, "All those ways I worked in India I can do here, involving the community, bringing in non-actors, really capturing the pride of the South Side," he said.

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