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Borough’s own ‘Push Cart’ man becomes film’s hottest young star

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Right now, arguably the hippest young actor working in film today could be a 30-year-old contractor living at home with his mom and dad and four brothers in the heavily South Asian section of Midwood. He’s got more indie street cred than Steve Buscemi and greater worldwide acclaim than Heath Ledger. He’s Ahmad Razvi, star of Iranian-born director Ramin Bahrami’s Sisyphus-tinged film Man Push Cart. Maybe you remember Razvi as the rock n’ roller with ripped jeans and cowboy boots who used to cut out of class at Sheepshead Bay High in order to chase girls? Or maybe you know Razvi as the hardworking entrepreneur who always seems open for some good conversation despite splitting his time between the construction company he began when he was just 19, and the busy Punjab restaurant he operates on Coney Island Avenue? It was at that popular Coney Island Avenue restaurant a couple of years ago where Razvi first served Bahrami some coffee and tea. The two had never met before, but Bahrami was interested in how the largely Muslim community of Midwood was dealing with the widespread government sweeps that had gripped residents in an almost paralyzing state of fear immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Razvi’s own family had emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. when he was four. “He heard about our community,” Razvi remembers. “We became friends. A year-and-a-half later, he goes, ‘Ahmad, here’s this script. I want you to act in it.’ I had never acted before.” Razvi still sounds incredulous retelling the tale, and even more amazed that the compelling movie depicting the struggles of a New York City food cart vendor has won 10 international film awards, including three best actor trophies for Razvi himself. This month, Razvi’s rocket-ride to stardom will be solidified should he win the best actor category during the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards broadcast on IFC February 24 at 5 p.m. “My competition is Edward Norton and Forrest Whitaker,” Razvi says, still coming to grips with his circumstances. “I mean, we’re talking Hollywood legends here. It’s unreal.” Maybe it’s not that hard to believe if you consider what Razvi has already accomplished in his life. Along with brother, Mohammad, Razvi co-founded the Council of Pakistan Organization. Together, the brothers quickly helped establish COPO as an invaluable resource center and lifeline for those who found themselves, or someone they loved, either abruptly deported, or unceremoniously tossed in a cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park without nearly a hint of habeas corpus. The group helped educate frightened immigrants suddenly made to feel like the enemy in the aftermath of September 11, and kept them plugged in to American life. “We grew up in the public school system,” Razvi says. “We grew up with Jewish and black and Hispanic kids. There were never any problems or racism. Then 9/11 happened, and people had a different view of other people with brown skin.” At the height of virtual hysteria, people literally started disappearing all over his community, Razvi recalls. Many simply refused to come out of their homes. Reports of hate crimes spread like wildfire. Undaunted by the ill climate, the Razvis sought healing and held fast to their American dream. They started a unity basketball league with just seven kids and help from Police Officer Mike Smith of the nearby 70th Police Precinct and the Police Athletic League. When the games grew too big to hold on the street, they cleared 6,000 square feet of “jungle and trees” behind COPO’s 1081 Coney Island Avenue headquarters and held the contests there. “We helped over 10,000 people since 9/11,” Razvi says. “Life is a circle. When you do something to help someone, eventually, life turns around to give you something.” Lately, Razvi has been helping brother Mohammad, COPO’s executive director, in his campaign to win the 40th councilmanic district seat relinquished by Yvette Clarke when she became a member of Congress. “We’re very family-oriented,” Razvi says. “We all live together. It’s such a big support. We help each other whether we’re up or down.” Razvi believes that Man Push Cart – shot in just 30 days in 2004 – is a film that not only the South Asia street vendors can relate to, but anyone who’s ever gone through the immigrant experience in the United States. “What’s so special about us?” Razvi asks. “Forty or 50 years ago, they were Greek. Eighty years ago, they were Italian. It’s an immigrant’s story. I took it personally and wanted to try and present it to the world.” Razvi did more than take his role as a Pakistani rock musician trying to make his way in America as a push cart vendor to heart – he lived it for a solid month, hauling the 1,000-pound push cart up and down the streets of 54th Street and Madison Avenue. “It was horrendous,” Razvi laughs with a small trace of pain still in his voice. “I pushed this huge thing around that’s normally supposed to be pulled by a van or car. In one scene, I fell in the middle of the street at 3 o’clock in the morning with taxicabs whizzing by me. I saw my life flash before me. But my director said no matter what, you have to stay in character. I fainted as soon as I got out of the scene.” Razvi refused to talk to Bahrami for three straight days after the incident. For Razvi, however, all the toiling has paid off well, and not just in the awards and movie roles – he’ll appear in two new movies later this year, one with Gretchen Moll called Train Wreck and another with Bahrami at the helm called Chop Shop. “I got an e-mail from this woman in Malaysia who said that she saw my film on TV and that it was amazing and heart-wrenching to see the struggles of an immigrant,” Razvi explains. “I think the film shows the struggle of an immigrant and how people blind themselves, or fail to see them on a regular basis. Do you notice the waiter bringing food to your table? He has goals and dreams.” Razvi’s dreams have only begun to come true, but he says he’s just a “simple guy” from the neighborhood “taking things slow.” “The other day I walked over to 18th Avenue and was standing in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts,” Razvi says. “There was this American guy behind me and he says, ‘Hey, are you that guy from that movie? Man, I loved that film.’ I was very happy. I bought him a cappuccino and we talked.” Razvi also continues to volunteer at COPO and is thankful for any positive impact his acting has had on the South Asian community. “I’m proud and honored,” he says. “It’s a stepping stone for our community. I’m trying to be that role model. I want people to understand, to try and do it. You can be successful and you can be a voice that is heard.” Despite his success on screen, Razvi is thinking about sitting in on some acting classes in the future. “Before I made this film the only thing I knew was Spider-Man,” he says. “I had no idea about indie film. Now, I’m learning.” Still, not everyone is keen on the idea of Razvi potentially messing with his remarkable success. “My director says, ‘hey, don’t spoil what you’ve got,” he laughs. Man Push Cart will be available on DVD next month. The Independent Spirit Awards will be broadcast on cable TV’s Independent Film Channel on February 24, at 5 p.m.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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