Early on in Mahesh Manjrekar’s City of Gold, the camera pans above what was once Mumbai’s mill district—the neighbourhoods that thrived in Parel and Lalbaug. Now it is a bustling industrial precinct. From the terrace of a high-rise, we see skyscraper domes piercing the sky, rows and rows of blue, reinforced glass windows reflecting sunlight, patches of brown land and matchbox chawls punctuating concrete towers. It’s a part of the city we see from flyovers that have dwarfed the neighbourhoods—from where the history is lost to the eyes.
When we see it from a height, through the eyes of one of the film’s lead characters (Shashank Shende) who has left the neighbourhood and the chawl he grew up in, while he narrates his family’s story to his girlfriend (Anusha Dandekar), we take notice of this sprawling cityscape. It’s an ever-changing skyline, hiding the stories of many displaced mill workers.
From the terrace, we move, in flashback, to one household in Lakshmi Kutir, part of a mill workers’ chawl in Parel. It’s the late 1980s, and after a nexus of mill owners, politicians and the mafia has shut down Mumbai’s cotton mills, the Dhiru family is struggling to survive. Three sons, a daughter, the father, who was a mill worker, and his dogged, embittered wife (movingly and authentically portrayed by Seema Biswas) tackle penury and petty crimes.
There is no reprieve in this story. One of the sons get embroiled in a mafia-industrialist conspiracy to kill mill worker union leaders, the daughter is cruelly betrayed in love, another son is an angry, failing playwright simultaneously battling writer’s block and poverty.
Outside this household, and on the streets, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. While union leaders led by an elderly leader and his young protege (Sachin Khedekar) rouse the hopes of unemployed workers with impassioned speeches, youngsters brawl over money and ego. There are some powerfully intimate moments in the film, and some are blatantly brazen. In a world seething with frustration and deprivation, almost every conversation can be fuel for violence and breakdowns.
Manjrekar knows his turf well. He is a Maharashtrian, who has directed and produced many Marathi films, including the blockbuster Mee Shivaji Raaje Bhosale Boltoy (2009). His earlier Hindi films, including his finest, the award-winning Vaastav (1999), was also set in a chawl at a time when the underworld’s power over the city was at its peak.
Manjrekar knows the language and manners of the chawl Mumbaikar and what makes life here vibrant and precarious. All his best films have pluck and a loud dynamism, almost always bordering on melodrama. City of Gold is no different, although it’s far inferior to Vaastav—Manjrekar made City of Gold in Marathi as Lalbaug Parel, which released earlier this month and has been a success.
The milieu, dialogues, pronunciation, costumes and characterization couldn’t have got more real. Manjrekar is not dealing with the unfamiliar here. There are sweeping shots of the religious parades during the annual Ganeshotsav in central Mumbai—where, famously, “Lalbaug sa raja”, a legendary Ganesh idol, is taken for immersion in the sea on the last day of the festival amid great pomp and chaos. The performances in the film are consistently good; every actor is in character throughout. Biswas, Ketan Patel as Naru, one of the sons; Khedekar, who plays the failed ideologue; Veena Jamkar as the stoic daughter Manju; and Siddharth Jadhav as a speech-disabled laughing stock who finally turns violent, deserve special mention. The film also celebrates the blatant earthiness and never-say-die spirit of the Maharashtrian woman—the three main leading women in the film are unputdownable till the end.
Ground reality: Mahesh Manjrekar’s City of Gold is based on a real and relevant subject.
But when it comes to executing the story, Manjrekar is unsure and inconsistent. He begins by establishing, in detail, the character of each member of the family, in turn lending a distinct character to the family and their home. But even before the second half begins, the loud histrionics typical of bad Hindi films of the 1980s begin to drag the film down. Towards the end of the second half, it is so uneven in pitch and pace that I began to disconnect with the characters. The end is ludicrous and takes away much of the spunk it began with.
This week, seven Hindi films released in theatres—six of them are concerned with some aspect of life in Mumbai. City of Gold is based on a subject so real and relevant that just attempting it deserves some kudos. Manjrekar, who co-wrote the film, is unequivocally sympathetic to the wronged mazdoor (labourer), making the “capitalist” look like a facile, money-mongering monster—a valid position to take, as long as the art which drives it is not hurried, confused and within headache-inducing limits. Watch City of Gold only if you can get past the noise to appreciate a subject that deserves much more than a film.
City of Gold released in theatres on Friday.