The hope for a better life draws many from the hinterland to the urban jungle. Most get manipulated to survive the heartless metropolis, the rest invite the danger of getting trampled. Director Hansal Mehta captures the friction between the two to create a scenario of the world we live in, where morals are devoured by hunger, where compromise bridges the gap between right and wrong. Our mainstream films often touch this ambiguity with a barge pole but Mehta works his way with a surgeon’s scalpel.
Deepak (Rajkumar Rao) shuts shop in his native town in Rajasthan and travels to Mumbai with his family in search of a better future. He has heard that in the big city nobody goes to sleep without food. He soon realises this city is the bigger monster than the money lending sharks back home. His wife (Patralekhaa) finds job before him. Obviously, in a dance bar, where most vulnerable Bollywood heroines end up. Deepak finds a friend and mentor in Vishnu (Manav Kaul) who gets him a job in a security agency, which delivers the black money and drugs of the rich. We soon discover that it is a trap where Deepak’s earthy simplicity and morality is tested.
An adaptation of the much-acclaimed Metro Manila, the producers give due credit to the source, which is a welcome change from the house of Bhatts. Mehta draws the content and structure from the British-Filipino production but manages to give it an indigenous identity. He has understood the pulse of the subject and lets the silence talk and emotions breath before the social drama takes the shape of a crime thriller.
The scenes where Deepak confronts the reality of his wife working in a dance bar or the one where Vishnu makes him realise the futility of being honest gives goose bumps. It is not the first time that we have come across such twists in the tale but it is the way in which it unspools that creates a lump in the throat.
It becomes all the more relatable because Rajkumar and Patralekhaa have internalised their parts. They imbibe not just the dialect but also the dialectics of the film.
Raj makes Deepak not just unspoilt but a metaphor for innocence that is going out of our lives. Take the frame where he plays blind for her kid.
You can sense his effort even in a shot which is of little consequence in the overall design. Patralekhaa doesn’t show off the pathos. To his credit, Mehta doesn’t allow her or her master at the bar to become a stereotype. In fact, she hits back when Deepak tries to push her into a bracket.
When it comes to chemistry, the media often construes it as the bond between the lead protagonists but Hindi cinema is full of instances when it is the covalence between the director and the actor that shines through. After “Shahid”, Mehta and Rajkumar once again prove that they are made for each other.
The music is soulful, but at times the songs blurt out just to underscore the banner’s image of having an ear for good music.
No marks for originality here. Logic does get compromised at times and not every turn looks authentic but Mehta upholds the emotional integrity of the narrative. And the masterstroke comes in the form of casting Manav Kaul as Vishnu, Deepak’s senior partner and his alter ego. The seasoned theatre actor-director gives face to the small town man turned into a beast by the ruthless city, lurking round the corner for his turn.
He is somebody Deepak resists becoming and it is this gripping struggle that keeps us bound to City Lights.
Cast: Rajkumar Rao, Patralekhaa, Manav Kaul
Bottomline: If you have watched the original try it to see how Manila could easily be Mumbai and if you haven’t, go get illuminated about the ground realities beneath your feet.