REVIEW: Sangam [2004]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 28 minutes | Release Date: 2004 (USA)
Director(s): Prashant Bhargava
Writer(s): Prashant Bhargava

“Don’t hijack the train”

Showing us two men that could be brothers in another life, writer/director Prashant Bhargava creates a short tome on how their similarities are anything but. For Vivek (Sanjay Chandani) and Raj (Hesh Sarmalkar), the magical crossroad Sangam holds great meaning to their pasts. The pilgrimage point where the Ganges, the Jamuna, and the Saraswati meet in Prayag, India, its power to give strength and freedom can take many forms. While one’s distant memory holds it as an exotic land whose beauty is worth experiencing again, its ability to give spiritual rebirth is the springboard for another to leap forward and attempt a better life in a new world.

Shot in New York City, Bhargava splices together the lives of these two Indian men as they wander the streets with soft focus footage of their homeland’s confluence and the people engaged in cleansing prayer. We see the stern look of malaise from Vivek, an American-raised technician caught in the doldrums of middle class success juxtaposed with the childlike wonder of Raj as his curiosity leads him on a journey whose initial hope has become strained. Both men are without an identity—one relegated to walking aimlessly amongst the other automatons ignoring what’s around them and another without a home desperately seeking a sign his choice to come was right.

Vivek was a boy when he visited his native country, the fleeting memories of nature’s religious fervor a point he strives to one day repeat. Now amongst the dirty, cold, and metallic surfaces of an American metropolis, it’s as though a part of who he is has disappeared. He is now one more vessel for the ambivalence of a population ignoring the plight of their fellow man, calmly walking through a domestic fight in the street and easily blocking out the loud cursing of a disturbed man on the subway (Amad Jackson) who may be calling out humanity’s very penchant for preconception and indifference. Vivek is what so many of us are, a selfish drone shuffling forward who only engages with others via the uncontrollable responses elicited to eavesdropped conversation.

If not bilingual due to his Indian parents, his proximity to Raj on that subway train would never have warranted a second glance. But a simple chuckle at this stranger’s retort in Hindi to a bigoted remark by another passenger sparks a connection. Their conversation is spoken in both languages, meandering to their love of Indian actresses, the music of Bollywood, their individual memories of Sangam, and the extremely disparate cultures from which they’ve come. Both originate from Allahabad in Southern India, but their paths diverged greatly and likewise their views on the world. Vivek sees his life as nothing special in the construct of where he grew up while Raj envies it to his core, hoping to somehow find a bit of it rubbed off onto him.

It is somewhat stunning to see the progression of imagery Bhargava films throughout the increasingly uncomfortable meeting of his characters. What first seems fresh and new devolves into a prison of closed doors without escape. Neon signs and bustling movement make way for static, reflective surfaces we constantly stare at while the world we try so hard to never look in the face moves past. One could say his message here is jaded, the brief jovial bond between two men a world away bridging its gap to inevitably devolve into what we fear and passive aggressively hope to avoid in our detachment from humanity. But maybe its authenticity only makes us pretend it is jaded so we never admit how true to our own insecurities it is.

We infer so much onto people we know nothing about and try so hard to escape the similarities between us. Whether an immigrant or a citizen, we all must overcome the despair that so easily ensnares. Symbols like Sangam always double as both beacons for return and powerful catalysts for escape depending on whom we ask—like these not so dissimilar strangers possessing a long ago fork in the road separating who they’ve become. Converging like those rivers in India, our chance meetings have the potential for greatness and compassion, but their sad reality is often hasty and unsympathetic action. From different worlds yet of the same cloth, one man’s idea of ethnic kinship doesn’t always match his counterpart’s. The power of the rivers’ healing ability could merely be an abstract idea for one, turning a cry for familial help into the desperate action of a crazed man.

Watch it yourself, as I did, on MUBI …

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