n August 2001, Ahmad Razvi was flying high. He had just opened up Punjab, a Pakistani restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, to much acclaim and was looking forward to managing it alongside his thriving construction business. The son of one of the first Pakistani immigrants to settle in New York in the 1970s, Razvi was well known in the predominantly Pakistani neighborhood of Midwood, Brooklyn. Though he had lived in New York since the age of 6, he was born in Pakistan and was fluent in Urdu, thanks to his mother’s lessons at an early age. His connections brought him good business, and Razvi had big plans for his 24-hour restaurant.
That is, until September 11, 2001. His Pakistani restaurant that was set to flourish was pelted by gunshots from angry New Yorkers calling him a terrorist, and Razvi was forced to slash his restaurant hours in half. “My business took a dip, and I had to cut my losses,” he says. But that didn’t bother him as much as the impact the events of 9/11 had on his community.
“The neighborhood that was growing to be the next Jackson Heights, it started disappearing,” he says wistfully. “My friends started disappearing. They were being arrested at five o’clock in the morning, being held for three or four months without anybody knowing.”
“I’m second generation, and my father is first generation. But now the third generation is getting to a point where they don’t know anything about their culture, their heritage.”
Razvi couldn’t sit by and watch the post-9/11 climate ravage his community that was already isolated and poverty-stricken. The racial profiling and selective immigration enforcement only exacerbated the community’s problems. So in February 2002, he teamed up with his father (who ran the well-known Punjab Grocery in Brooklyn) to establish and fund the Council of Pakistan Organization, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping his fellow Pakistanis survive and flourish. Razvi used his construction experience to design and build the space himself. (The organization’s name was changed to Council of Peoples Organization later to embrace the South Asian community as a whole.)
“We started up ESL programs, a ‘know-your-rights’ program and other services. We were bombarded from people all over the city—from the ages of 8 to 65—who wanted to use our services,” he says. “We were teaching about four ESL classes a day.”
But it wasn’t just about helping the older immigrants with their needs. Razvi was committed to preserving his community’s heritage. “I’m second generation, and my father is first generation. But now the third generation is getting to a point where they don’t know anything about their culture, their heritage. So COPO was a venue where they could relate and learn about it, as well. Growing up in a Western society and keeping your roots is a great thing. My mother has taught me so much, and I want to pass that on.”
COPO was truly a family affair—Razvi taught ESL and computer classes, while his older brother Mohammad served as the executive director and his father sat on the organization’s board. “We survived for the next two years with our own funds,” says Razvi proudly. He even launched a youth basketball program and invited many different communities to get involved. “I had 80 kids—Jewish, Muslim, Christians, and I would mix them up in teams, so they would have to work together to win. Before every game, we talked about racism and prejudice,” he says.
“The community began to grow and grow,” says Razvi of the efforts of COPO, and he also gained a deeper understanding of the issues facing the Pakistani-American community. It was clear that COPO was changing the lives of Razvi’s community members—but he had no idea how it would change his.
In Theaters Near You
Man Push Cart, a heartbreakingly beautiful film set on the streets of New York City, opened in Spain in August and New York and Los Angeles in September. The film continues to be released in theaters worldwide:
October 20, Music Box Theatre
London and other select cities in the UK
December 8, Landmark Lumiere or Opera Plaza
December 8, Landmark Shattuck
San Rafael, CA
December 8, Rafael Film Center
Despite the initial decline in business, Razvi managed to eke out some success for his restaurant, Punjab. Sandwiched between his time at COPO and running his construction business, Razvi found time to work at the Pakistani eatery as well. That’s when he met Ramin Bahrani.
Bahrani was a young filmmaker looking for a story—and he thought he could find it in the Midwood neighborhood that had been in the news since 9/11.
“We started talking,” says Razvi, “and I told him about the hate crimes and other problems we faced.” Razvi and Bahrani quickly forged a friendship, but Razvi had no idea what was to come.
“I knew he was working on a script about push cart vendors,” says Razvi, who had actually worked in a push cart part-time when he was in high school. “But when he handed me the script to read, I was like whoa! The first page said ‘Ahmad.’”
Bahrani’s script was about a Pakistani rock-star-turned-New-York-City-push-cart-vendor in Manhattan—and he named the lead role after his friend. “I knew so many push cart vendors in New York. I have been to their homes, met their families, had meals together,” says Bahrani. “One was a journalist, the other an engineer, one had worked in TV in Afghanistan. There is more to them than just selling coffee and doughnuts. And everyone who looks like them, or like me or Ahmad, in a post-9/11 world are not terrorists.”
“Ramin said, ‘Ahmad, I want you to act in it.’ He had even incorporated some of the stories I’d told him into the script,” says Razvi, who was both shocked and thrilled at the prospect of starring in a movie. “I was flattered, and I was excited. But I was nervous as hell, because I didn’t have any acting experience.”
“But when I saw the other actors,” remembers Razvi, “I thought, what is it they’re doing that I can’t do? So I started studying the script, learning every single thing. I would go watch push cart vendors, see what they do. I began to understand their stories, their lives.”
Razvi’s preparation paid off—the little indie film, titled Man Push Cart, soon began receiving recognition and gaining acceptance at international film festivals.
“When we found out we were accepted to the biggest, oldest international film festival—Venice—we went crazy. My director was crying, saying, ‘Do you know what this means?’”
Actually, Razvi didn’t, but he went along with it. He even flew himself out to the festival and watched the film’s screening from the back of a 900-person sold out theater. “I was so nervous, I was smoking in the back of the theater,” says Razvi. “But when the movie finished, everyone started clapping. Some people were crying.”
That was Razvi’s first taste of stardom—the festival-goers recognized him from the film and even asked for his autograph. And that was just the beginning—the film went on to receive critical acclaim at other festivals including Sundance, and Razvi even won the Best Actor award at the 2006 Seattle Film Festival.
But Razvi is modest about his success. “I actually can’t imagine it, but it’s just a really great thing,” he says. “It was a beautiful art movie, and it felt good to be a part of it. It’s a very fictional story, but it’s rooted in reality. It’s just something so real that people can relate to.”
And though Razvi plans on pursuing an acting career—he stars in Bahrani’s next film called Chop Shop and is currently pursuing a deal with a prominent Indian filmmaker he says can’t name—he insists his life hasn’t changed. “I’m still doing construction,” he says. “I love it—I love to get my hands dirty. Am I going to change? No. I’m still going to volunteer. I will still be responsible to my family. Nothing has changed, and I don’t think it will. Any influence I get, I just want to use it to help the community.”