The atmospherics of this film fit the protagonist to a T.
Man Push Cart is the story of a taciturn Pakistani immigrant who operates a food cart on the streets of New York. We gradually learn enough about his life and his recent past to see that while he may not have a horrible life, one can certainly understand his gloomy demeanor. He allows himself to interact with the other characters only superficially. In some cases that’s probably due to a general shyness (as with a girl I take it he likes, as he displays a sort of resentment if anyone else takes an interest in her or vice versa). But I think it’s also sometimes a matter of being suspicious of the motives of certain people he encounters who are slick in manner and overly eager to “help” him. They don’t turn out to be bad guys necessarily, just run of the mill bullshitters to a certain degree, whose “help” is at least as self-interested as altruistic. He seems disinclined to bother with the games and social rituals they represent.
As I say, the style, the feel of the movie, is very much in keeping with his general gloominess. Number one, it’s dark. For almost every scene, it’s either night (or really early morning–there are constant shots of him dragging his cart through traffic before the sun comes up to take his position for his work day), or a dark room, or a part of a room where a shadow covers a good part of his face, or a close-up shot where you can’t see the context or the details around him. Number two, there’s maybe one-third as much total dialogue as in the average movie of the same length. Lots of silence. Lots of watching him drifting through his day murmuring occasional monosyllables in response to what is going on around him.
I don’t think that style means it’s a poorly made movie, but it did make it a bit of a chore to watch. Because there’s not as much available visually, and there’s not as much being said, and the main character by nature doesn’t reveal a whole lot of himself, you get a very incomplete picture of things, and different viewers will have different levels of tolerance for that. I’d prefer a bit less confusion and guessing when I’m watching a movie, but I can understand people preferring something like this to a movie that spells everything out as obviously as possible.
Overall I’d say it’s probably at least a fairly good movie in terms of art, but to find it entertaining I would imagine you have to be a certain kind of person in a certain kind of mood. For me personally I was only interested in the main character and the movie as a whole to a modest to moderate degree.
A few other random thoughts:
There are some things about the film that I’m sure are not intended to be obscure but just happen to require certain background knowledge or life experience. For instance, I don’t know what that thing is he carries around with him for a good portion of the film. I would imagine it’s some kind of tank with propane or some gas that he uses in his cart for the foods and beverages that need to be heated. But that’s just a guess since I’m not familiar with the item. Plus assuming that’s what it is, I’m not clear why he has to carry it around 24 hours a day.
Virtually all the customers that he and the other street vendors deal with are as friendly, polite and sociable as anyone this side of Mayberry. And this is set in New York?!
Oh, and he rarely if ever pushes the cart. He’s invariably shown pulling it.