New York, I Love You is the second of the "Cities of Love" features and follows the hugely successful (and far superior, in my opinion) Paris, je t'aime. While I absolutely adored Paris, je t'aime, I had no interest whatsoever in seeing the New York iteration, in part because I tend to hate sequels and copies, and also because I don't have even a passing interest in NYC.
However, I do have an interest in Irrfan Khan--ever since seeing Maqbool and The Namesake I've been head over heels for him, and I consider him one of India's most talented actors. One of NYILU's little vignettes is a piece directed by Mira Nair (swoon) which stars Irrfan alongside Natalie Portman (swoon again) so off to Netflix I went.
I have to say I have somewhat mixed emotions about the piece. Irrfan is great, Natalie is mostly great (unconvincing accent aside) but the piece as a whole didn't hit the right notes for me. It felt a bit preachy, a little bit too "let's celebrate what we have in common" and all that jazz.
Irrfan plays Mansukhbhai, a merchant in NYC's bustling diamond district, and Natalie Portman is Rifka, a Hasidic gem dealer who comes to see Mansukhbhai about some diamonds the day before her wedding.
The hard bargaining begins right away, with Mansukhbhai discussing the price over an intercom with an associate in Gujarati, and quoting a higher price to Rifka. She understands enough Gujarati to call him on his numbers, and they have a laugh--this isn't the first time they've played this game.
He eats as she considers his offer.
"You can't eat meat right, you Hindus?"
"No, we are not Hindus. We're Jains."
They discuss food--for Mansukhbhai it's no meat, no fish, no potatos and no garlic. For Rifka it's no pork, no shrimp, nothing that hasn't been blessed. In the customs of food they have much in common.
"That is why there are no Christians in the diamond market. How can you trust a person who will eat anything?"
They agree on a price, and he reaches to shake her hand.
"I'm sorry, I can't shake your hand. I'm not allowed to touch any man who isn't my husband."
Talk turns to family. Rifka asks about his children, whose pictures hang on the office walls. Of his wife Mansukhbhai reports that "last year she decided that marriage is a sin. Now she's in India, with her head shaved, going door to door collecting food in a bowl."
Rifka then displays her own shaved head--her hair a banished memory in accordance to her strict Jewish faith.
"And now for the rest of my life I have to wear some other woman's hair."
At this point the story turns from one of believable simplicity to surreal (and possibly imagined?) romance. Mansukhbhai tells Rifka that her wig might be made of his wife's hair, as so many wigs are made of the hair that Indian women cut off and leave in temples, and Rifka, who wouldn't allow Mansukhbhai to shake her hand only a few minutes earlier, not allows him not only to touch her bald head but to kiss it.
Fast forward a day to Rifka's wedding. We see her being joyously hoisted aloft on a chair, her husband the same on the other side of the partition which divides the men and women at the wedding. As her husband bobs in and out of sight her face changes, and we see instead the happy face of Mansukhbhai across the wall.
Meanwhile, Mansukhbhai drives his car along the city streets and smiles to himself as he, like Rifka, imagines himself with a very different partner and a very different life.
I wanted to like this so terribly but I ended up finding it somewhat tacky (particularly when Mansukhbhai sees them reflected in his diamond). I might have felt better about the short as a whole if it had ended with their eyes meeting over the partition at Rifka's wedding--the last thirty seconds seemed somewhat cheap. And I certainly expected something more from Mira Nair--granted, this is a five minute film but it could have been so much more. Instead it preached and wandered--"what's so wrong with women's hair anyways?" The short seemed set up to be a lesson on religion and culture rather than a story to get lost in. It was contrived.
Irrfan, I thought, was excellent, as he always is, and Natalie was lovely, though as I said her accent was somewhat...stereotypical. Interestingly enough there was supposed to be a third character, a real-life Hasidic man was cast to play Natalie's husband. The Hasidic community threatened him if he continued, as participating in a film was against the community's values. He withdrew from the project only a few days into filming. It would have been interesting to see how the story was originally meant to play out.
If you have Netflix then you wouldn't be completely wasting your time to check this bit of the film out (it's about ten minutes into the movie), but otherwise don't bother renting New York, I Love You just to see it. It's sadly not quite worth the trouble.