Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha, Manav Kaul
Director: Hansal Mehta
Soul-destroying poverty can drive people into deep cesspits, and the struggle to stay alive can be heart-rending. Citylights sets out to tell us the story of a young couple and their little daughter forced into migrating from their village to the big, bad city.
Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) soon discover that Mumbai, jisme koi bhookha nahin sota (no one sleeps hungry), isnt exactly paved with gold. They are pushed to the brink, and find themselves trying to find a spot to sleep, to work, to eke a living. The going is hard, the city unforgiving and unrelenting.
For Vishesh Films to officially remake a film ( Citylights is remade from the 2013 UK-Phillipines Metro Manila ) is new. Seeing the Bhatts come back to grit and realism, after their string of sex-horror schlock, is nice. And teaming up with Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao, who gave us Shahid, one of the best films of last year, is nicer still.
The result is a grim yarn which moves you intermittently, but whose patchiness is papered over by a fine performance from Rao. It could have been more impactful if the songs, and some amount of improbability, had been kept at bay. The lyrics keep intruding into the narrative, trying to wring sympathy. This takes away from the film, and injects drippiness in a film which needed none : the story, despite its occasional bumps, is enough to make us feel.
Deepaks naivete is frightening. We know that something bad is about to happen, and we want to reach out to him, and tell him to watch out. Rao makes us care, and that out of his completely inhabiting his role, his hands wrapped around his knees, his eyes reflecting desolation and despair, and in the way he finds the resolve for what he needs to.
Newcomer Patralekha has promise, even if she cant hide her innate urban-ness, the way Rao does : her descent into dance-bar seediness adds to the grind of the big city which swallows millions of hopefuls and spits them out, husk and all.
A sharper act comes from Manav Kaul, who plays Vishnu, a disgruntled employee of a security firm, who lures the reluctant Deepak into a maze which promises dodgy profit. There are nice cameos through the film : the owner of the security outfit is a well-judged blend of crassness and viciousness, and a drug boss lords over his empire with brutal ease. This is the world the village innocents have to navigate, and we see how lost they are, and how the city is geared towards demeaning the very poor.
That poverty is powerlessness and helplessness is brought out well. The best parts of the film feature Deepak and Vishnu talking their way around a plan which will lead them into an abyss; Kaul, with roiling intent, pushing, and Rao, with innate honesty, pulling. Kauls essaying of the part lifts the film, which tries to balance its crime-thriller elements with soft-core sentimentality.
Mehta does well with generating dread and creating a couple of surprising curves, which almost overcomes some of the plots uneven arcs. The songs nearly ruined the film for me, but Citylights gives us pause. And an actor who makes us believe, all the way.
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