Directed by Richie Mehta
Starring Rupinder Nagra, Roshan Seth, Naseeruddin Shah
The reputation of rickshaw drivers in New Delhi is apparently so atrocious that the characters in Amal regard the existence of a decent one as something of a miracle.
Far different from the "sucking leeches" and "bloody crooks" who give his vocation a bad name among passengers, the sad-eyed protagonist of Richie Mehta's debut feature is so saintly he won't even take a tip of three rupees. At once anonymous and singular amid the bustle of the overcrowded and overheated Indian capital, Amal epitomizes the rarest of virtues as he demonstrates the value of integrity, responsibility and loyalty.
Presented with such a beacon of goodness, viewers may have a hard time accepting his existence as well. But one reason that Mehta's movie - which earned a berth in Canada's Top 10 list after an enthusiastic reception at the Toronto International Film Festival last year - succeeds on its own modest terms is that it has the quality of a fable. The works of O. Henry are another apt reference point, given the abundance of well-intentioned moral lessons and somewhat overconvenient plot twists in Mehta's script, which the Mississauga-born filmmaker based on a short story by his brother Shaun. (The tale also inspired Mehta's award-winning short film of the same name.)
The large cast combines well-known actors from India with Canadian talent - including Mehta's and his crew of 30 - exported to New Delhi for the occasion. Rupinder Nagra is the star, playing the kindly rickshaw driver who continually surprises his fares by charging them only what's on the meter. One such passenger is a cantankerous senior who, despite his rumpled attire, turns out to be a wealthy hotelier. So impressed is G.K. Jayaram (Naseeruddin Shah) that he changes his will and names Amal as his heir.
Not being privy to the rich man's deathbed decision, Amal has no idea about the commotion that has been caused in the lives of Jayaram's adult children or disgruntled business partner (Roshan Seth), who now has the difficult task of finding Amal among New Delhi's 80,000 rickshaw drivers. Our humble hero is more concerned about the fate of a cute beggar girl who was injured in an accident for which he feels partly responsible. As the higher-caste characters scheme to get what they think they deserve - Jayaram's gambling-addict son Vivek (Vik Sahay) being the most scurrilous of the lot - Amal sacrifices his own needs and hopes in order to help his young friend.
Though its creakiest plot contrivances are more appropriate to a soap opera - or maybe a more commercial-minded outing for Shah, Seth or any of the other Bollywood veterans whom Mehta was fortunate to cast - Amal largely overcomes its own shortcomings. Shot on the fly, the many street scenes lend the proceedings a sense of authenticity that is missing in the more melodramatic moments. Likewise, most of the actors invest their characters with enough warmth to render them fully human.
Nagra's achievement is particularly impressive. The air of melancholy that pervades his performance suggests that Amal may share viewers' suspicion that the world doesn't deserve his like. And for all of the characters' talk of "God's will," we see again and again how Amal's code of ethics allows him to weather the vagaries of fate better than the more privileged but more morally flexible people around him. It's a simple lesson, but one worth heeding.