The team that gave us the stirring Shahid returns with Citylights once again with Rajkummar Rao in the lead. Citylights is an official remake of Metro Manila written and directed by Sean Ellis that made the festival rounds last year and was the British entry to the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Film category.
Hansal Mehta deconstructs the slow burn and exploitation village folks go through on moving to the city in hope of the good life. Rajkummar Rao plays the role of a village simpleton – in every sense of the word – who moves to Mumbai from Rajasthan with his wife (Patralekha) and kid in search of better times. Mehta ushers us into the theme in the very beginning where even the opening credits appear and disappear as if someone is switching a light on and off. He shows us the carefully arranged adequate household of Deepak Singh and his family. The vessels are grouped in order, the tumblers are arranged in sizes in shape of a hill and Deepak and his wife are content making love in the confines of their small livelihood under the moonlight. The montage portends everything the family will go through in the immediate future. The beginning is anything but happy because we know this family is going to be under the city lights soon and will be plunged into that chaos.
And plunge he does. Deepak’s contact in the city goes incommunicado and he’s swindled the minute he reaches the city. Some of the situations the family faces initially feel a bit contrived but to Mehta’s (and I believe Sean Ellis’s) credit it is tough not to buy into these contrivances. The position they are in is very real and at these times the malefic tendencies of the city bare their naked ugliness. Deepak and his family are put up in a tiny room at the top floor of a building still under construction. The caretaker there takes hundred bucks for the lodging and says how the same apartment will be worth crores upon completion. This is an affecting allegory within the larger storyline and once again portends the events to come later in the film.
Rajkummar Rao plays the naive and vulnerable Deepak Singh to perfection. Naivete is a very mild word to describe his disposition. When he is convincing his wife of the decision to move to the city he closes his argument with, “aur vahan to samundar bhi hai.” Little does he know that the ocean is as fascinating as it is terrifying. Vishnu (Manav Kaul), Deepak’s mentor at the security bureau he works for puts it perfectly when Deepak doesn’t get the hints even when good things happen to him and I paraphrase – “tum itni dheemi gati wali film ho na main kya bataun”. Manav Kaul turns in the best performance in the film and he plays Vishnu with a quiet menace and sardonic wit that we latch onto in the very first scene we see him. Vishnu is a schemer and anyone even half as gullible as Deepak will fail to see through his antics. A scene brimming with black humor illustrates the curlicue of Vishnu-Deepak relationship to come soon after they meet. Deepak has to attend a grilling session by the boss and Vishnu prepares him for it and offers a joke that will get him out if he finds himself in a fix. Deepak tells the joke but not before some goading from Vishnu and everyone bursts out laughing. We laugh too but we also shift in our seats for the scene is dark and funny at the same time. It is as if everyone except Deepak – and that includes us – is in on the joke.
Citylights has a grim outlook towards the city but it cannot be termed cynical. The film gives an “it is what it is” vibe that is hard to shrug off or dismiss. The performances are first rate and the writing brutal. It may have light in its title but the theme here is as dark as the night just before dawn.
(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)