There is an old, worn city in India called Ahmadabad, which is known for its festival of kites. Each year, for as far back as anyone can remember, the residents go up to their rooftops on the appointed day, ready to battle. The sky seethes with kites, slithering like eels. Flapping like butterflies. Jerking like bats. On that one day, everyone is equal. Rich or poor, it makes no difference. What matters is how long you can keep your kite afloat, and how many of your neighbors’ kites you can cut down.
Aakash Maherya, the son of a postman, learned to fly kites as a young boy, when the master-flyer in the neighborhood let him hold his spool of string. The master taught him to let the string, coated with razor-sharp ground glass, spill out just enough to send those paper hunters into sky.
Kite flying became an obsession for Maherya. He took acting classes at Gujarat College, but kites always came first. Once, he passed up a chance to perform in a national theater competition, because it fell on the same day as the festival of kites.
So it seemed like destiny when an Indian-American filmmaker from Brooklyn came to town and announced that he was making a film called “Patang” — or “The Kite” —
The tryouts for the leading male role — “the hero,” as it’s called in India — were held on a rooftop. Bhargava spent the afternoon watching actors try to coax tissue paper rectangles into the air. Maherya was the absolute best, a kabuki dancer leading his kite across the sky.
But Maherya, age 22, was not your average film star. He had a slight build and wore no-name clothes. He had never been out of Ahmadabad. He had never kissed a woman. On the day of the kissing scene, Bhargava didn’t tell him what was going to happen. When co-star Sugandha Garg planted her lips on Maherya’s, the wonderment spreading across his face, captured on camera, was real.
But then the realness of the film started bleeding into his life. He was the hero, so his friends got jealous of him. He fell in love with Garg, who didn’t love him back, just like in the movie. After her commercial film, “Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na,” became a Bollywood blockbluster, he had a hard time convincing people he knew her. He moved to Mumbai to try to make it as a film star, but no one would return his call. He drifted, smoked too much, got a job as a newscaster, and contemplated suicide.
But after a long, dark period, he returned to Ahmadabad. He found himself again, among the kites. He started directing his own short films and found that he loved it. And then, one day, just before the kite festival, Bhargava returned. “Patang” was finally finished. Roger Ebert gave it four stars. (This week, it is playing in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles.)
Bhargava rented a local theater so that people from Ahmadabad could see themselves. The big screen filled with images of Maherya and his kites. Later, all the actors clamored up to a rooftop to savor the last hours of the festival. Women in yellow saris held kites with one hand and babies with the other. Boys lit firecrackers and cowered as they went off. Sunidhi Chauhan’s anthem — “I’m Too Sexy For You” — blasted across the city. Down below in the street, cars honked in celebration. Cows wandered by. Dead kites hung from every clothesline. A blood red sun dipped behind the rooftops.
But Maherya kept flying. His fingers, taped like a prize fighter’s, danced his last kite out into the night. Bhargava took the spool and let the string spill out so the kite could run away from them, as far as it wanted. They worked wordlessly on it — actor and director — grimacing in unison when it plummeted, and grinning together as it fought its way back up into the sky.