Bollywood’s famous Bhatt camp has made hugely successful remakes of Hollywood films (Ghulam, Murder and Raaz, to name a few) but have not always been generous in giving credit to the original source. However, they have made a clean break with past tradition in their latest offering CityLights. The fact that the film is a remake of the British thriller Metro Manila is mentioned right in the opening credits at least half a dozen times. And it’s a welcome irony that this fully credited desi copy of a much acclaimed original is one of the most authentic products from the Bhatt camp in a long time.
CityLights, produced by Mukesh Bhatt and directed by Hansal Mehta (Shahid), is a novel and refreshing take on crime in the maximum city that eschews many clichés in favor of a moving, original human drama.
The film’s central character is Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao), a dirt poor man from an obscure corner of Rajasthan who comes to Mumbai with his wife and kid in search of a job and better life. But life in the big city turns out to be a nightmare for him in more ways than one. He is robbed off all his savings as soon as he lands, his only contact in the city goes missing, and he and his family have to live on the streets.
CityLights does not glamorize or provide an ode to Mumbai. Instead it’s a cautionary tale set in an unforgiving and cruel metropolis that suggests that those trying to break free from “the disease of poverty” can end up with devastating consequences
After much searching, Deepak manages to get a job as a security guard/chauffeur for a security firm that appears to cater to mostly black moneyed clients. He is befriended by the more experienced “Vishnu Sir” (Manav Kaul). Vishnu takes the younger man under his wings and trains him, but he is overly friendly and helpful and his smile seems to hide darker motives. Without giving away too much, lets just say that the two men get involved in a crime that goes horribly wrong.
The majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation, said the American philosopher Henry Thoreau. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city of Mumbai where behind the dazzling lights and tall skyscrapers, millions of people lead lives of utter desperation, their days spent in trying to make both ends meet.
Interestingly, CityLights does not glamorize or provide an ode to Mumbai. Instead it’s a cautionary tale set in an unforgiving and cruel metropolis that suggests that those trying to break free from “the disease of poverty” can end up with devastating consequences. The cinematography captures Mumbai in full splendor, its tall buildings can rival the best of Dubai or Singapore, but the hard focus of the camera deliberately takes away some of the pleasing effects from the visuals.
Besides, the choice of Mumbai as a central character also suffers from a feeling of overexposure and déjà vu. Though the city’s flyovers, the queen’s necklace and the glass buildings are captured with flair, we have been here before in many other films and hence the effects are not as novel as, for example, what we witnessed in Aurangzeb, where another booming metropolis Gurgaon was revealed, perhaps for the first time, in striking post modernist glory. In that film, glittering Gurgaon served as a perfect backdrop for an evocative crime saga. One thus feels that the filmmakers of CityLights could have chosen some other teeming big city to give it a newer and edgy feel.
While the plot of CityLights is intriguing and holds your interest,what really stays with the viewer are the smaller moments and the eye for detail which reveal the turmoil and pain of the characters. Like, when Deepak is tricked out of all his money by a sham broker as soon as he lands in Mumbai — it’s both funny and poignant. He is eventually forced to live in an under-construction flat where the watchman helpfully informs him that the completed 3BHK will cost at least 3 crores.
Also notable are moments when his wife is humiliated and stripped by her boss in a dance bar. Or a parallel sequence later on when Deepak and Vishnu are forced to remove their clothes by a cruel client who delights in humiliating them.
What also works, without doubt, are the fantastic performances. There is no doubt that Rajkummar is one of the finest young actors working today. His method acting approach that earned him a National Award in Hansal Mehta’s previous venture Shahid works very well here too. As the rustic simpleton, he is gullible, vulnerable and funny. For example, the scene when he is forced to crack a non-veg joke to his prospective employer. What’s funnier than the joke itself is his perfectly earnest delivery of it.
Matching him scene for scene is Manav Kaul as his partner at work. It’s a very different performance than the Hindu fundamentalist that he played in Kai Po Che, but as in that film, here too one can sense the darker edge that is concealed beneath his character’s smiling surface. Kauls’ character is the most intriguing and the actor reveals it patiently, layer by layer. Also notable is newcomer Patralekhaa as Deepak’s innocent wife who is thrust into the corrupt city, finds work in a shady dance bar, and shows a gritty resolve to survive against all odds right till the ironic denouement.
Though closer in style and execution to an art movie, CityLights is likely to appeal to the mainstream multiplex crowd who are in the mood for a more substantial and discerning movie than current offerings like Heropanti. CityLights is a gripping, entertaining thriller that despite a slightly draggy second half holds your attention and tops with it a nifty twist that takes the story back to where it started.