Long before The White Tiger which has opened worldwide to rave reviews and will stream from 22 January in India, American director Ramin Bahrani of Iranian descent, had made this monumental ode to street-children in New York. In its adherence to an almost hand-held camera-credibility and in casting non-actors in key roles Chop Shop reminded me of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay.
Like Nair’s film Chop Shop is raw and hurting, and unsparing in its physical detailing of squalor. But it’s also deeply affectionate in its attitude towards its young protagonist, a 12-year Latin American boy played by a child with no previous acting experience. To say that young Alejandro Polanco lives the role would be understatement. Alejandro, or ‘Ale’ in the film is so close to the character that the line between cinema and reality gets blurred and cancelled out, leaving us with a portrayal of deprivation and uncertainty that is underlined by a vigorous hopefulness.
Although Ale lives at the bottom-most level of migratory existence in Queens(NY) with his older sister in a room small enough to be a chicken coop Ale is happy to have a roof on their head and food in their belly. The heartbreaks are many. During the time we see Ale’s struggle to stay afloat, two really awful life-changing incidents occur.
Rahim Bahrani leaves no room for sentimental stock-taking. As we move from day to day in Ale’s life, there is a stunting sameness to the modes of survival on the road. And yet each day is different. Each day is the same and yet the world looks different, more hopeful for Ale. There is a magical mutating of monotony happening every moment in this film about the survival of the swiftest. For those who grow up on the street getting out of it is a distant (American) dream.
Every moment of Chop Shop is precious without creating an imbalance between the real and the cinematic universe. Michael Simmonds’ camera wanders silently prowling discreetly but directly through the poorest sections of New York where scrapyards flourish, young boys who should be in school spend their time stealing car parts and watching girls perform oral sex in cars and trucks.
This is a world held together only by the will to survive. Director Ramin Bahrani understands the hope and the hopelessness of the have-nots only too well. Just how well, you shall soon know in The White Tiger.
Image source: IMDb, Youtube/kochlorber
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