CityLights is not exactly new territory for Hansal Mehta. True, it is inspired by Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila and the filmmakers remind us of that by crediting Ellis and his crew in many places, but, on a deeply personal, sardonic level for Mehta, it is not that different from his 2000 film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar.
Both films deal with the story of a young man in a big city, whose struggles ultimately lead him to crime and while Mehta’s protagonist Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) is married and does it for his family, Manoj Bajpayee, who played the lead in the earlier film, does it to show others that he can overcome odds. Both characters are forced into crime, and tragedy is the overlying emotion in both films.
In CityLights, one can’t help feeling the foreboding of disaster from the moment Deepak and his wife (Patralekhaa) decide to move to Mumbai in search of a better life. The debt-ridden cloth merchant persuades his wife that it is the city where “no one sleeps hungry”.
Mehta’s camera follows the life of this simpleton as he wades into the muck of the dirty underbelly, where guile and deceit wait at every lurking corner. In our modern-day cynical worldview, we choose to call this deception and callousness a ‘reality check’, as if the real and the bad were one and the same thing, were always meant to be so.
Mehta’s world, however, does not believe in whole black and whites. All three characters in the film are coloured in grey, albeit the colour has been forced on all of them. Rao, for all his innocence, ultimately does succumb to the traps of a society, which has no place for his goodness. Here, he will always be the victim, the sufferer. His wife too is forced to see reason in first, accepting the job of a bar dancer, and later, understanding that her husband will have to do wrong to do right, a fact that is not etched out in as many words in the film, but one that Mehta does not need words to explain. In their respective roles, both Rao and Patralekhaa have done well. But, the newcomer-actor could perhaps have delivered her lines a bit more clearly. It is difficult to make out if the nasal twang is affected to help her slip into her character better, but it doesn’t exactly work.
Rao has acted after a manner that has come to be expected of him. As a man exploited by everyone and everything around him, he simply tugs at your heart. But, the real surprise of the lot is Manav Kaul as Rao’s boss, the supervisor of the security firm he works in.
Slipping effortlessly into his role, Kaul works up the part of a man tired of lugging others’ ill-gotten wealth and getting humiliated. Like Deepak, he too is a victim of the system’s ruthlessness, forever damned to poverty if he does not snatch his dignity. Kaul’s smiling yet brooding Vishnu is as authentic as anyone who has known life only to be a struggle, pretty much like the old building he stays in, surrounded on all sides by high-rises in the city of dreams. Mahesh Bhatt must be credited for having picked Kaul as much as for having agreed to produce a film like this one.
However, the script is not without wrinkles. The film’s music, nice at first, starts to get annoying by the time it reaches the halfway mark. If the object was to use music as a device to heighten the tragedy, then the device was forced. In a story this strong, with actors this good, the film did not need music this much. When everything else was inspired by Metro Manila, then why was music not as conservatively used? This is the only question that makes CityLights stop short of being an exceptional film.