The sparkling lights that dot the skyline of Mumbai represent dreams. Or as a character in the film says, pointing to illuminated windows in high rises, each of those lights represents a dream come true. Many dreams, however, are shattered. Hundreds of people arrive in big cities every month with minimal belongings and maximum hope. Deepak Singh’s story is no different.
Driven away by debt, accompanied by his wife Rakhee (Patralekhaa) and daughter Mahi, Deepak (Rajkummar Rao) leaves his simple and once contented life in Rajasthan to arrive in Mumbai with meager savings, one phone number, a wish and a prayer. By the end of their first day in the big bad city, they are left with only the last two. The following weeks are a trial of their bond, integrity, principles and resolve.
As the city tests them day after day, as hunger and their child’s fading future confront them, Rakhee and Deepak are forced to make some tough decisions. But through it all they remain a united, strong family unit, steadfast in their hope that some day they will return home. But life has a way of throwing you a curve ball. In Deepak’s life, it comes in the towering form of Vishnu. Vishnu (Manav Kaul) is Deepak’s boss at a security agency, his mentor, friend and nemesis.
Manav Kaul makes the most of a juicy part underlined by shades of grey. He is riveting and certainly looks good in a uniform! The scenes between Kaul and Rao are electric. Rao brings innocence and vulnerability to Deepak that stands in sharp contrast to the more worldly and ambitious Vishnu. Once more, Rao imbibes the part in such a way that you cannot imagine him as anyone but Deepak. From the way he crouches, to his endearing village bumpkin ignorance to the drunken scene to his final act, he is everyman.
Patralekhaa makes a strong debut in a role that demands subtlety and nuances. For the most part she rises to the challenge. The little girl as the daughter Mahi is lovely too. But the other un-credited star of the film is Mumbai as seen by director Hansal Mehta.
Mehta, who won the National Award last year for Shahid, another gritty Mumbai story, and cinematographer Dev Agarwal effectively capture the relentless rhythm of the city, yet the story maintains simplicity at its core. The lighter moments that punctuate a heavy and hard-hitting screenplay come as welcome relief.
The editing by Apurva Asrani gives the film a cadence, building gradually from the languid pace of the village to the frenetic chaos of Mumbai. Look out, especially, for the superbly cut ‘Darbadar’ song. Jeet Ganguly’s songs add another layer of emotion. Having said that, there is one song too many, with the westernized Usha Uthup title track in particular being the most jarring. Raju Singh’s background score is also a bit intrusive.
Hansal Mehta’s official adaptation of Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila (2013), CityLights is a film with an Indian soul but globally relatable emotions. It shows you, square on, how the pursuit of a dream can lead you to a dark and dangerous place. But it juxtaposes that with strong Indian family values. Before you know it, the family drama segues into a thriller, with a few surprise twists and a dramatic climax that is bound to move you.
Mehta captures urban, modern life in alls its stark reality. You might be tempted to avert your eyes, but the pacing, performances and events unfolding on screen will not give you an opportunity to do that.