A poor New Delhi rickshaw driver is the saintly title hero in "Amal," a conventionally crafted but emotionally effective heart-tugger from debuting writer-helmer Richie Mehta.

A poor New Delhi rickshaw driver is the saintly title hero in “Amal,” a conventionally crafted but emotionally effective heart-tugger from debuting writer-helmer Richie Mehta. Thanks largely to Rupinder Nagra’s dignified lead performance and a supporting cast of sterling Indian vets, pic finds the humanity in this gentle tale about the trials and unexpected rewards of human compassion. Canadian production has been racking up audience awards on the fest circuit since its Toronto premiere, but may have trouble parlaying its winning qualities into an enthusiastic arthouse embrace.

From its initial frames, “Amal” conveys a vivid sense of daily street-level existence in the Indian capital, where kindly, bearded Amal Kumar (Nagra) drives passengers in the auto-rickshaw he inherited from his late father. When one of his regular fares, beautiful, headstrong store-owner Seth (Koel Purie), loses her purse to a young street urchin, Priya (Tanisha Chatterjee), Amal chases the thief on foot, only to watch in horror as she’s struck by an oncoming vehicle.

Amal’s response to this situation — he visits Priya at the hospital and assumes responsibility for her medical bills — reveals his fundamentally generous nature. So, too, does his treatment of another passenger, curmudgeonly G.K. Jayaram (Naseeruddin Shah), whose tetchy insults and impatience fail to penetrate Amal’s calm, deferential attitude. What Amal doesn’t realize is that Jayaram, shabby outer vestments aside, is a millionaire on his last legs.

Mehta’s script thus develops into two races against time: While Amal struggles to raise money for Priya’s operation, G.K.’s lawyer (Seema Biswas) tries to find the generically named rickshaw driver to whom her client unexpectedly left his vast fortune.

A cliche subplot involving G.K.’s scheming son Vivek (Vik Sahay) yields some third-act thriller machinations that don’t gel with the film’s otherwise gentle tone. But if Mehta presses some familiar buttons, he also shows a disarmingly light touch with certain plot points — such as the fact that Amal seeks financial help from the same crime boss to whom Vivek owes gambling debts — that consequently register as ironic rather than contrived.

Moving ending won’t satisfy all viewers, but shows admirable devotion to the film’s notion that “Sometimes the poorest of men are the richest.”

Nagra grounds the proceedings with a restrained, engaging take on a role that, absent any rough edges or complexities, is perhaps a bit too diamond-in-the-rough on paper. Supporting cast brims with characters who are hard-edged but essentially decent, from Purie’s feisty businesswoman and Shah’s belligerent benefactor to Biswas’ highly principled attorney.

New Delhi-lensed pic derives considerable color and texture from d.p. Mitchell T. Ness’ fine HD lensing and Mark Gabriel’s unfussy production design.

Amal

Canada

Production

A Les Films Seville Pictures, Poor Man's Prods. presentation, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, in association with Austin Capital Corp., with the participation of Astral Media, in association with Citytv, M, Movie Central, with the assistance/participation of the Canadian Film or Video Tax Credit. Produced by David Miller, Steven N. Bray. Executive producers, Peter Starr, Robin Cass. Directed by Richie Mehta. Written by Richie Mehta, Shaun Mehta.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, HD), Mitchell T. Ness; editor, Stuart A. McIntyre; music, Dr. Shiva; production designer, Mark Gabriel; art director, Anthony Morassutti; costume designer, Kelsey Hart; sound recordists (Dolby Digital), Sanjay Mehta, Sunil Kumar; re-recording mixers, Stephanie Carrier, Kirk Lynds; visual effects supervisor, Bob Gundu; line producer, Wendy Ord; associate producers, Randi Kirshenbaum, Craig Merritt; assistant director, Ryan Hyland; casting, Harish Khanna, Mukesh Chhabra. Reviewed on DVD, Anaheim Hills, Calif., May 11, 2008. (In Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles; Toronto, AFI Dallas film festivals.) Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Rupinder Nagra, Naseeruddin Shah, Seema Biswas, Koel Purie, Vik Sahay, Roshan Seth, Tanisha Chatterjee, Amardeep Jha, Dr. Shiva, Gurpreet Singh Chana "The Tabla Guy", Siddhant Behl, Maya Mankotha. (Hindi, English dialogue)

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