A Tennessee Williams-style story of family jealousy is grafted onto a distinctly Indian background in Chicago-born helmer Prashant Bhargava’s intriguing if overstretched indie debut, “The Kite.” Bhargava’s background in commercials and musicvideos is all too apparent in the jiggly lensing and frenzied editing, but he’s done a fine job of interweaving India’s largest kite festival and a well-integrated cast of thesps and non-pros who make viewers care about the “little happinesses” the characters cling to. Fests can fly this “Kite” with confidence, though theatrical will be difficult to get off the ground.
The helmer shot more than 200 hours of footage in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad; it would have been better to make a docu with some of that excess material (a perfect DVD extra) rather than cram so many side roles and mood enhancers into the basic plotline. Labels usefully introduce the characters amid the initial chaos onscreen, all in relation to Jayesh (Mukund Shukla), who has just arrived from Delhi with his twentysomething daughter, Priya (Sugandha Garg), on the eve of Uttarayan, the kite festival.
It’s been five years since Jayesh has come back to see his mother, Ba (Pannaben Soni), and widowed sister-in-law, Sudha (Seema Biswas). While the home still has vestiges of its former grandeur, the family, which once owned a publishing business, has fallen on hard times. Jayesh presses his illiterate mother to sign a contract he won’t fully explain, but she suspects he’s selling off the house and refuses to go along without Sudha’s advice. Sudha’s son, Chakku (Aakash Maherya), harbors a bitter resentment toward his uncle, whom he accuses of causing his father’s early death through greed and self-advancement.
The action takes place over two days, while Ahmedabad is in a flurry of preparations for the festival that brings residents of all ages together on the rooftops. Bhargava has Priya carry a minicamera and record the street scenes, incorporating “her” footage as a semi-organic way of enhancing the pic’s sense of local color and hubbub. Aside from the focus on the family’s strained dynamics, he also brings in the differences in mindset between the modern “sophisticates” from Delhi and the more traditional population in Gujarat: Priya has a romance with Bobby (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), but Bobby isn’t used to women for whom flings have only temporary meaning.
A great deal of Bobby hanging with his posse could be trimmed, and a subplot involving a young kite runner (Hamid Shaikh) needs to be expanded or cut altogether. Bhargava easily captures the atmospheric bustle and excitement that overtakes the city, but takes it further than necessary; a couple of songs during the kite flying play too much like musicvids dropped into the proceedings.
The helmer has a sure hand with his actors, immeasurably enhanced by Biswas’ ability to bring a depth of character to even an underwritten role. As the wisest yet least talkative person on screen, she becomes a motherly presence whose underlying bittersweetness is salved by a palpable warmth of heart.
Lensing by Shanker Raman (“Peepli Live”) aims for a freewheeling, almost hip-hop vibe full of shaky closeups that, together with Bhargava’s editing, frequently leads to a slight sense of confusion and therefore disconnection. Priya’s footage is doctored to give it a Super 8 feel complete with glares and color shifts at the edges. Music and original tracks are enjoyable though unlikely to linger after the final credits.