After an independent film like ‘Shahid’, Hansal Mehta feels making ‘Citylights’ was a smoother process

Director Hansal Mehta, actor Rajkummar Rao and editor Apurva Asrani are an enthusiastic trio eager to see the outcome of Citylights, their project together after the much-appreciated Shahid.

With Shahid, Hansal Mehta was slipping into many different roles apart from being a director, like most directors of independent films do, trying his best to promote his film with limited resources and making the film accessible to its target audience. With Citylights backed by Fox Star Studios and Vishesh Films, he could afford to solely focus on his craft and leave the rest to his producers.

“The film being produced by two well-known production houses ensured smoother marketing and distribution. I focussed on making the film. Mahesh Bhatt was clear that he wouldn’t watch over my shoulders and interfere while shooting. I had complete creative freedom,” says Mehta. After doing a tightrope walk for Shahid, it was comforting, he says, to get all that he required from the producers. “Whether it was the necessary equipment or crew members, everything was in place. I could finish the film on time,” he says.

Citylights is an adaptation of British-Filipino film Metro Manila, starring Rajkummar Rao and debut actress Patralekha. Metro Manila told the story of a family that moves to Manila from farmlands in hope of better prospects. Eventually, the protagonist finds himself caught in a web of the big city and its devious ways.

Adapted to the Indian context, Citylights focuses on a farmer from Rajasthan who comes to Mumbai with his wife and daughter. The burgeoning metropolis throws up new challenges and the family learns to deal with them. 

 “Fox Star Studios had acquired the rights of Metro Manila and approached Vishesh Films. Mahesh Bhatt who looks after the creative aspects of the production house felt the film is relevant in the Indian landscape,” says Mehta.

Films produced by the Bhatts in recent years have mostly fallen into the mould of erotic thriller franchises. Wasn’t it a leap of faith for Mehta to go with the Bhatts? “It was a leap of faith for them as well, to choose a project that’s different from what they’ve been doing in recent times,” says Mehta.

Mehta’s belief stemmed from Mahesh Bhatt’s repertoire as a director. “In my growing years, I’ve watched and admired films made by Mahesh Bhatt, particularly Saaransh,” he says.

Mehta observes that like Bhatt’s directorials, his films are also not borrowed from European or World Cinema sensibilities but rooted in our society. “I just make a film with honesty,” he says.

Mehta says Citylights is an adaptation, not a remake. “Vishesh Films had already adapted the screenplay when they called me. I read the script, liked it and wanted to do it my way. I haven’t seen Metro Manila till now. I didn’t want my vision to become crowded with what another filmmaker has done.”

Actor Rajkummar Rao was already on board before Mehta joined the team. “The production house had approached him and he in turn had shown them Shahid. So in this case, I didn’t choose Rajkummar; he chose me. And I was convinced his choice of film wouldn’t be wrong.”

Mehta feels Citylights is like Do Bigha Zameen, set in today’s context. “It’s a universal story of a family thrown in tough situations and fighting against all odds. This could have happened in any country.”

As for working again with editor Apurva Asrani and Rajkummar, he says, “There’s a comfort level working with people you know and more importantly, they are very good at their work.”

We cannot not ask him if the industry is more accepting of him after Shahid and the National Award for the Best Director. “I don’t know. I haven’t been meeting too many people outside of my work,” he shrugs.