One of the perennial tales that my maid shares with me over our morning tea together is about the Rs 69,000 that she was duped of in a kitty. Still haunted by the loss of her hard-earned money, she often wakes up in cold sweat in the middle of the night. Citylights unspools similar misfortunes, setbacks and despair in the life of its hard-up protagonist Deepak (Rajkumar Rao). The film gives due credit to Metro Manila, Sean Ellis’s much celebrated British-Filipino crime drama, of which it is a remake. Hansal Mehta told me that he hasn’t seen the original. Yet, he has been able to craft a fine, affecting film from the adapted script handed over to him.
The theme—of rural exodus and exploitation of the poor—fits the contemporary reality of a rapidly urbanising India quite well. Also, despite the 60 years separating them, Deepak of Citylights also feels like a throwback to the Shambhu Mahto of Do Bigha Zameen, immigrating from his village to the city, in search of a livelihood and life. It’s about the ridicule, indignity and humiliation he and his family face to try and get their share of happiness. It’s about being oppressed by city folks, who themselves are as embattled. But the film then goes on from being a sort of social documentation to becoming an edge-of-the-seat thriller, yet doesn’t quite give up on its messages. In a nutshell, quite a see-saw of emotions.
Mehta keeps things real, but not too raw and stark. He shoots with a sense of rhythm. There is a gentle flow to the story-telling and a nice moodiness lingers, be it the delirium of the dance bar or the military-like operations of the security agency where Deepak finds a job. The frames that seemingly look most calm and quiet brim over with the disquietude within the characters. Like the scene when Deepak’s senior partner (Manav Kaul) looks at the tall buildings around him and rages about his own dump of a house.
The climax involving a key left me with some niggling questions. The songs in the background detract from the narrative too. Given the pace and mood of the film, the use of Raju Singh’s background score alone would have been far more effective. But these minor issues are settled by strong performances, even in the minor roles. Rajkumar proves that when it comes to acting, less could well be more. He communicates as much with his subdued, diffident body language—the way he sits on his haunches—as he does with his face. You can’t help not feel for him. Manav, as his senior, has a more flamboyant, show-stealing character, the kind who makes evil look incredibly attractive. The two are in stark contrast—innocent and gullible as against street-smart and manipulative—yet in perfect sync with each other. It’s interesting to see that instead of any visible upmanship, the two actors complement each other and help bring out the other’s traits. So far, they make the best couple in Bollywood this year.
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