Hansal Mehta’s new film Citylights is about desperation, cloying desperation. Mumbai, ever faithful to loss, change and deceit, is the culprit. Deepak (Rajkummar Rao), a bankrupt sari seller from rural Rajasthan, arrives in the city with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and a beautiful daughter around seven years old. Chicanery is round the corner; strangers dupe the unsuspecting family in the next few hours.
The migrants fall straight into a mongrel’s rotten existence until Rakhi finds a job at an orchestra bar and Deepak is hired at a company plying security vans carrying safe-deposit boxes. Halfway down—so far a faux-gritty misery montage—Citylights shifts to thriller territory. That’s some respite. Too much kindness from an office senior (Manav Kaul) has to be ominous for Deepak, who realizes he has access to a deposit box full of cash.
Mehta’s film festers in the story’s limited scope
Mehta’s film festers in the story’s limited scope. That is obvious in almost every scene. Songs are tools for emphasis—literal translations of emotions supposed to define a scene, they belt right into the tears and histrionics of the couple. Like a potboiler, repetition packs the narrative. The film does not have a distinct visual language, oddly oscillating between glossy B-grade Bollywood and low-light candidness.
Rao, an actor who has chiselled himself for everyman roles, and newcomer Patralekha are adequate in their parts—true to the monotone drifts of their characters; and without inspired flights. Kaul musters a winning guile typical of the kind of city rat we see or read about in pop culture. He is the best, or at least the most impressive, character in the film.
Behind the clash of the rural innocence and urban trickery, Mumbai flashes by, unintrusively. It is supposed to be the villain, but Mehta and his writer Ritesh Shah put it away. So the labour and loss of the invisible city’s new victims—going through the same old rigmarole of wretchedness—do not make for good cinema. Some narrative economy and imagination would have set them up for art.
Citylights released in theatres on Friday.
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