Hansal Mehta’s CityLights is one film I have been gushed about ever since I heard about it. After watching his earlier venture, Shahid, 2 years ago, I was convinced that Mehta has found his sleight in telling tales of the teething realities of our times. Gripped by the first trailer itself, I went in to watch the film first day first show, this morning. It is not a happenstance that he has cast the phenomenal Rajkumar Rao in this one, post their association in Shahid. The duo also won National Awards individually for the earlier film and Rao is undoubtedly India’s current best actor. Contrary to the struggles faced by Shahid to find a theatrical release, the Bhatts (Vishesh Films) took up CityLights early on and have watermarked it with their traditional music style without robbing it off its essence. Yet, CityLights is far less greater than Shahid which goes on to say that it is hard to create magic on screen everytime you decide to make a film.
CityLights is a documented adaptation of the British-Filipino crime drama, Metro Manila, and takes utmost care to credit the original Sean Ellis film multiple times in its credit roll. Something that must be unusual for the Bhatt camp. Mooched into an Indian setting, Metro Manila becomes a film about a family which is forced to migrate to Bombay from a small village in Rajasthan after tragedy strikes the breadwinner, Deepak (Rajkumar Rao). A slapdash decision to land in Bombay throws Deepak, his wife Rakhi (Patralekhaa) and kid Mahi, in the middle of a sea of problems which they would have never imagined, neither were street smart enough to deal with. Lack of money is an ineffable disease in a big city, the one which sticks to your skin and leads you to worse deeds. Writer Ritesh Shah and director Hansal Mehta have crammed CityLights with smashing characters and disturbingly realistic portrayal of the grim realities of small people in big cities. Adversities come in galore in the life of Deepak and his family but all of it looks fairly organic, christened with striking performances from the whole cast.
Mehta does not give in to cheap and manipulative sentimentality, infact checks it within the domains of reality. Watch the scene where Deepak finds out about the job of his wife or the scene where he comes home drunk for the first time, all of them profound moments weaved together searingly hit your guts. The problem with CityLights is its pacing. Once the character of Manav Kaul is introduced as Deepak’s supervisor at the private security services, you start suspecting a budding tension as he smilingly talks about his despicable life. But the story takes too long to come around the major reveal of his intertwined plans, mostly running on the fuel of Deepak’s existing money problems. Post the middle slump, the film picks up in the final 30 minutes and delivers a solid punch. On the whole, the original material of CityLights is not exceptionally engaging but Mehta adds a visceral touch to it rendering it much better.
Produced by Fox Star Studios and Vishesh Films, CityLights is like most other Bhatt camp films – made on a stringent budget with good music to enable fast cash recovery at the Box Office. I met Hansal Mehta recently and he had said that he completed CityLights in less than the budget provided to him for shooting. However, it is hard to say he compromised on any production values. Dev Agarwal’s cinematography is unrelenting and affects a deep sense of pain as Deepak goes through his journey while Apurva Asrani has done a splendid job at editing. Jeet Ganguly’s music espouses the gravity of the film with much panache and works once again. Arijit Singh’s Muskuraane and Sone Do are the pick of the lot.
CityLights is a completely honest attempt by Mehta to infallibly capture reality at its darkest hour. Such a film would not work under the hegemony of a popular star who cannot submit himself to the film. As for Rajkumar Rao, he grinds Deepak’s character into a powder, mixes it with water and drinks it. The tizzy restrain, the callow naivety, and the rooted commitment he brings to this part is exceptional. Patralekhaa complements Rao perfectly, cautiously slipping into the shoes of Rakhi, underplaying her part, until she prances and pounces on her failing husband who comes home drunk, but still hugs him and sleeps next to him after. Yet it is Manav Kaul who steals the show here. Dressed in blue khakis as Deepak’s supervisor, Kaul brings a fresh spin to the character and voraciously captures your attention even in a supporting part. His performance is pure brilliance. Most other characters have relatively much lesser significance but are indeed well cast for their roles making a shining ensemble.
It is hard to imagine CityLights being made as sensitively by most popular filmmakers and this is where Hansal scores a punch, displaying the bitterly sobering realities with a subtle ease. It is also hard to imagine anyone else doing such justice to the vision apart from Rajkumar Rao and Patralekhaa. CityLights is a very hard hitting film made with a lot of sweat and effort, yet it falls somewhere in the middle due to its lack of meat. I am sure it will take a slow start at the Box Office but I urge you to go out and watch this one in theaters. It has an enduring aftertaste of honesty which we rarely find in our cinema of today. If not for that, the performances will surely bowl you over!
Rating – 3/5