It’s difficult to review a film that works in parts and trudges along in the others. The official remake of UK-Filipino film Metro Manila, CityLights begins with a village where Deepak (Rajkummar Rao) and his family are living a content life (shots of the couple playing with the kid against dappled sunlight). But unexpected situations force him to relocate to Mumbai with his wife and child.
Once in Mumbai, the film turns to the ‘simple villager exploited by the big, bad city’ drone. They get fooled out of the meager amount they were carrying, and are forced to sleep on the streets. The police station is worse, as the cop plays games on his phone while listening to Deepak’s complaint. Further exploitation occurs as the wife turns a bar dancer (in a cringe-worthy scene) and the husband gets a dangerous job.
Quite unexpectedly, the film changes to thriller mode. His new job with a delivery agency involves dealing with criminals and delivering packages. This portion of him getting the job, and getting trained is gripping.
Some delightful bits of dark comedy are insinuated with his senior (Manav Kaul, superb). The job interview scene where he tells a rehearsed joke, that he himself doesn’t understand is priceless!
The senior trains and mentors him calling him “dheemi gati ki film” (slow film) for his naiveté. In fact, this quality is the source of several amusing moments in the film, as he often doesn’t understand obvious nudges.
The film may have its flaws but the performances see you through. Rajkummar Rao gives a masterfully restrained performance as the character that is constantly a victim of circumstance. As his wife, Patralekha matches step and gives a powerful rendering of the character that turns from a demure wife to the family breadwinner. She too, is a victim of circumstance, but is an absolute survivor. Their equation, marked with love and respect, is one of the film’s highlights. The other is Deepak’s uneasy equation with his senior, heightened by terrific performances by Rao and Manav Kaul.
The film delights you with its nuances. Deepak renting out an under-construction flat for 100 bucks a day (it’s all just brick and stones) and being informed the flat will cost 3 crore once its done is superb. His hesitant crossing of the roads reflects his discomfort with the overwhelming city.
The dialogue is functional with occasional gems like his senior referring to poverty as a disease that sticks to the person like a parasite. Astute editing by co-writer Apurva Asrani (who also cut Shahid) takes you through the various moods of the film.
Director Hansal Mehta who has just won the National Award for the spectacular Shahid, is undoubtedly an opinionated, fearless filmmaker. Here, he is on slushy ground mainly because we don’t understand what the film is trying to say. The larger-than-life finale is surprising in a film with such a realistic texture.
The few songs in the film are aberrations – one is a dance bar song, the other an Aashiqui 2- type romantic number. The distractingly misplaced background score is omnipresent, and you yearn for a few moments of silence. The powerful visuals certainly deserved it.
The film doesn’t quite work to its full potential. You might want to sample it for the story, formidable performances and few arresting moments.
Rating: Three stars